Tendons are strong bands or cords of tissue that attach muscle to bone. They help move the bones and joints when muscles contract.
The main types of tendon injury are:
- tendonitis – inflammation of a tendon
- tendinopathy – the gradual deterioration of a tendon
- tenosynovitis – inflammation of the protective sheath that surrounds a tendon
- tendon rupture – a sudden tear in a tendon
Tendon injuries usually happen during sports or activities that involve sudden, sharp movements, such as throwing or jumping, or after repeated overuse of the tendons, such as running.
They can also be caused by repetitive daily activities, such as regularly using a computer keyboard and mouse. This is known as a repetitive strain injury (RSI).
Symptoms of a tendon injury
Tendon injuries can affect many different parts of the body. Commonly affected areas include the shoulders, elbows, wrists, knees, fingers and backs of the heels.
Symptoms of a tendon injury can include:
- pain that gets worse when you move the affected area
- stiffness in the affected area, which may be worse in the morning
- weakness in the affected area or being unable to move a joint
- a sensation that the tendon is grating or crackling as it moves
- swelling, sometimes with heat or redness
- a lump on the affected tendon
If your tendon ruptures, you will usually experience sudden and severe pain, which may eventually settle into a continuous, dull ache or no pain at all. Movement in the affected area may also become more difficult or even impossible.
Read more about the symptoms of tendon injuries.
When to see your GP
Minor tendon injuries can often be treated at home (see below). They will usually get better in a few weeks.
See your GP if your symptoms are severe or don't start to improve within a few weeks, or if you think you may have ruptured a tendon.
Your GP will usually be able to diagnose a tendon injury by asking about your symptoms and examining the affected area. Occasionally, they may request an X-ray, ultrasound scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to confirm the diagnosis.
Some medications may be related to tendon injuries, such as fluoroquinolone antibiotics and statins, so your GP may stop these if you’re taking them.
Treating tendon injuries
If you think you have injured a tendon, stop doing the exercise or activity that caused your symptoms and rest the affected area initially. As your symptoms start to improve, you can gradually return to your normal activities.
In the meantime, paracetamol and ibuprofen can help to ease mild pain - but wait for 48 hours after your injury before taking ibuprofen, because it can slow down healing.
Also, holding an ice pack or bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a towel to the affected area may help relieve your pain.
For more persistent injuries, your GP may be able to refer you for treatments such as physiotherapy, corticosteroid injections or shock wave therapy.
In some cases, surgery may be recommended to treat long-term injuries that have not improved following other treatments, or to repair a ruptured tendon.
Read more about treating tendon injuries.
Preventing tendon injuries
You can help reduce your risk of tendon injuries by:
- warming up before playing sport or exercising, and cooling down afterwards – read about how to warm up before exercising and how to stretch after exercising
- making sure you use the correct equipment for the activity you're doing, such as wearing appropriate footwear
- getting specialist coaching or training to help improve your technique in a particular sport
- not exerting yourself beyond your physical capability
- exercising the affected area to stretch and strengthen it – a physiotherapist may be able to advise you about the best exercises to do
- avoiding repetitive movements when possible and make sure you take regular breaks
- ensuring your desk, keyboard and mouse are in a comfortable position – read more about preventing RSI
If your job involves repetitive movements, ask your employer to provide rest periods, devices to support your wrists, and help with your posture.