Tendons are strong bands of tissue that connect muscles to your bones. Sometimes, calcium builds up in them and causes a condition doctors call “calcific tendonitis.” Calcium deposits feel like toothpaste. They can collect in one spot or spread out around the tendons.
Doctors don’t know what causes them. But they do know they’re more common in women than in men. It typically happens around age 30. And research shows there’s a link between calcium deposits in tendons and diabetes and thyroid disorders.
Often, calcific tendonitis doesn’t cause problems. But if the calcium deposits get bigger or become inflamed, they can cause severe pain.
This condition most often affects the shoulder. The calcium deposits usually form in the rotator cuff -- a group of muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder joint. It keeps the top of your upper arm bone locked within the socket of your shoulder.
Calcific tendonitis can also happen on the Achilles tendon. This connects your calf muscle to your heel bone. You can get it in your wrist, hip, thigh, knees, ankle and foot, too.
What Are the Symptoms?
The most noticeable sign of calcific tendinitis might be pain, though you might not have any at first. That’s because it can take months or years for calcium deposits to form.
Over time, calcific tendinitis can also make movement painful (especially in the morning) and can limit your range of movement. If it’s in your shoulder, it might hurt to lift your arm. The pain might also make it hard for you to sleep.
How Is It Diagnosed?
X-rays will show if you have calcium deposits and where they’re located. Your doctor may take a series of them over time to see what changes have taken place with your calcium deposits. They may also want you to have an ultrasound or MRI.
What’s the Treatment?
There are surgical or nonsurgical options. In many cases, your body will reabsorb the calcium without any treatment. But the calcium deposits may return.
Your doctor will first want you to ease your pain and inflammation with rest and an anti-inflammatory drug like ibuprofen or naproxen. If that doesn’t work, you may need a cortisone injection. That’s a steroid that reduces inflammation in the short term.
Your doctor may suggest a procedure called “lavage.” This involves inserting two needles into the tendon and rinsing the area with a saltwater solution. Lavage can break the calcium particles loose and ease the pain.
Another possible treatment is called “barbotage,” or “fine needling.” In this procedure, your doctor uses needles to suck the calcium deposits out of the tendon.
Ultrasound and shockwave therapy are other ways to make the calcium deposits smaller or break them up.
If the pain continues, you might need surgery. In fact, if you have calcific tendinitis in your shoulder, there’s a 1 in 10 chance you will need it.
Removing a calcium deposit on a tendon usually requires outpatient arthroscopic surgery. Your surgeon will insert an instrument called an arthroscope through a small cut. Then they’ll remove the calcium deposit and rinse the area.
In rare cases, you may need open surgery to remove the calcium deposit. Your surgeon will make a large cut to get to the calcium deposit.
Whether you have surgery or not, you’ll likely need physical therapy. These are special exercises to stretch and strengthen the area affected by calcium deposits.