Pain at the posterior heel or posterior ankle is most commonly caused by pathology at the posterior calcaneus, the Achilles (calcaneal) tendon, or the associated bursae. The following bursae are located just superior to the insertion of the Achilles tendon. Subtendinous calcaneal bursa. This bursa (also called the retrocalcaneal bursa), situated anterior (deep) to the Achilles tendon, is located between the Achilles tendon and the calcaneus. Subcutaneous calcaneal bursa. Also called the Achilles bursa, it is found posterior (superficial) to the Achilles tendon, lying between the skin and the posterior aspect of the distal Achilles tendon. Inflammation of one or both of these bursae can cause pain in the posterior heel and ankle regions.
The most common causes of bursitis are injury or overuse, although infection may also be a cause. Bursitis is also associated with other causes, such as arthritis, gout, tendinitis, diabetes, and thyroid disease.
Pain and tenderness are common symptoms. If the affected joint is close to the skin, as with the shoulder, knee, elbow, or Achilles tendon, swelling and redness are seen and the area may feel warm to the touch. The bursae around the hip joint are deeper, and swelling is not obvious. Movement may be limited and is painful. In the shoulder, it may be difficult to raise the arm out from the side of the body. Putting on a jacket or combing the hair becomes a troublesome activity. In acute bursitis symptoms appear suddenly, with chronic bursitis, pain, tenderness, and limited movement reappear after exercise or strain.
Careful examination by your physician or physiotherapist can determine if the inflammation is from the Achilles tendon or from the retrocalcaneal bursa. Tenderness due to insertional Achilles tendinitis is normally located slightly more distal where the tendon inserts into the back of the heel, whereas tenderness caused by the retrocalcaneal bursa is normally palpable at the sides of the distal Achilles tendon. Diagnosis can be confirmed with an ultrasound investigation, MRI or CT scan.
Non Surgical Treatment
The initial treatment for retrocalcaneal bursitis is to avoid activities that cause pain and take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (for example, ibruprofen). Your doctor may recommend icing the heel several times a day and may prescribe physical therapy to improve flexibility and strength around the ankle. Physical therapy serves two functions, it can help the bursitis improve and it can help prevent future recurrences.
Only if non-surgical attempts at treatment fail, will it make sense to consider surgery. Surgery for retrocalcanel bursitis can include many different procedures. Some of these include removal of the bursa, removing any excess bone at the back of the heel (calcaneal exostectomy), and occasionally detachment and re-attachment of the Achilles tendon. If the foot structure and shape of the heel bone is a primary cause of the bursitis, surgery to re-align the heel bone (calcaneal osteotomy) may be considered. Regardless of which exact surgery is planned, the goal is always to decrease pain and correct the deformity. The idea is to get you back to the activities that you really enjoy. Your foot and ankle surgeon will determine the exact surgical procedure that is most likely to correct the problem in your case. But if you have to have surgery, you can work together to develop a plan that will help assure success.