The Achilles tendon runs from the calf muscles at the back of the lower leg and inserts at the back of the heel. A torn achilles can be a partial rupture or a total rupture. A total rupture is more common in men affecting them 10 times more than women. Injury typically occurs 30 to 40 minutes into a period of exercise rather than at the start of a session and nearly always happens from a sudden explosive movement or bending the foot upwards. Many patients are able to continue to function following an achilles rupture due to other muscles compensating although the injured leg will be significantly weaker. There are four key tests which can help diagnose a ruptured achilles tendon.
The Achilles tendon usually ruptures as a result of a sudden forceful contraction of the calf muscles. Activities such as jumping, lunging, or sprinting can cause undue stress on the Achilles tendon and cause it to rupture. Often there is a background of Achilles tendinitis. Direct trauma to the area, poor flexibility or weakness of the calf muscles or of the Achilles tendon and increasing age are some of the other factors that are associated with an Achilles tendon rupture.
Patients often describe a feeling of being kicked or hit with a baseball bat in the back of the heel during athletic activity. They are unable to continue the activity and have an extreme loss of strength with the inability to effectively walk. On physical examination there is often a defect that can be felt in the tendon just above the heel. A diagnosis of an Achilles tendon rupture is commonly made on physical exam. An MRI may be ordered to confirm the suspicion of a tear or to determine the extent of the tear.
In diagnosing an Achilles tendon rupture, the foot and ankle surgeon will ask questions about how and when the injury occurred and whether the patient has previously injured the tendon or experienced similar symptoms. The surgeon will examine the foot and ankle, feeling for a defect in the tendon that suggests a tear. Range of motion and muscle strength will be evaluated and compared to the uninjured foot and ankle. If the Achilles tendon is ruptured, the patient will have less strength in pushing down (as on a gas pedal) and will have difficulty rising on the toes. The diagnosis of an Achilles tendon rupture is typically straightforward and can be made through this type of examination. In some cases, however, the surgeon may order an MRI or other advanced imaging tests.
Non Surgical Treatment
A physical therapist teaches you exercises to help improve movement and strength, and to decrease pain. Use support devices as directed. You may need crutches or a cane for support when you walk. These devices help decrease stress and pressure on your tendon. Your caregiver will tell you how much weight you can put on your leg. Ask for more information about how to use crutches or a cane correctly. Start activity as directed. Your caregiver will tell you when it is okay to walk and play sports. You may not be able to play sports for 6 months or longer. Ask when you can go back to work or school. Do not drive until your caregiver says it is okay.
Surgical correction of the ruptured tendon is almost always necessary. Surgery is performed in order to regain the maximum strength of the Achilles, as well as the normal pushing off strength of the foot. The strength of the muscle depends on the correct tension between the muscle and the tendon. The only way the correct tension on the tendon can set is by accurately repairing the tendon ends. When the tendon ruptures, the ends of the tendon separate and multiple little strands of the tendon are present like pieces of spaghetti. There are old fashioned techniques for repairing the tendon which require very long incisions (eight inches) on the back of the leg. These are complicated and associated with a high incidence of infection in the skin after surgery. This is an important consideration, since infection in the skin can lead to devastating problems with the skin and tendon. This problem of skin infection has, in the past, led surgeons away from surgical methods of treatment. Fortunately, now there is a new, unique method available for operating on and repairing the tendon. This new method requires only a tiny incision of one to two centimeters in length. This is far more accurate surgery. Recovery after this procedure is easier and the surgical complication rate is extremely low.
To prevent Achilles tendonitis or rupture, the following tips are recommended. Avoid activities that place an enormous stress on the heel (for example, uphill running or excessive jumping). Stop all activity if there is pain at the back of the heel. If pain resumes with one particular exercise, another exercise should be selected. Wear proper shoes. Gradually strengthen calf muscles with sit-ups if prior episodes of Achilles tendonitis have occurred. Always warm up with stretching exercises before any activity. Avoid high-impact sports if prior episodes of Achilles tendon injury.