Your Achilles tendon is a large band of tissue in the back of your ankle. It connects your calf muscles to your heel bone. The tendon helps you point your foot downward, rise on your toes, and push off when you walk. You use it almost every time you move. But repeated stress can make the tendon more prone to injury. It may become inflamed and develop small tears (tendonitis). A complete tear through the tendon is known as an Achilles tendon rupture.
An Achilles tendon rupture is often caused by overstretching the tendon. This typically occurs during intense physical activity, such as running or playing basketball. Pushing off from the foot while the knee is straight, pivoting, jumping, and running are all movements that can overstretch the Achilles tendon and cause it to rupture. A rupture can also occur as the result of trauma that causes an over-stretching of the tendon, such as suddenly tripping or falling from a significant height. The Achilles tendon is particularly susceptible to injury if it is already weak. Therefore, individuals who have a history of tendinitis or tendinosis are more prone to a tendon rupture. Similarly, individuals who have arthritis and overcompensate for their joint pain by putting more stress on the Achilles tendon may also be more susceptible to an Achilles tendon rupture.
You may notice the symptoms come on suddenly during a sporting activity or injury. You might hear a snap or feel a sudden sharp pain when the tendon is torn. The sharp pain usually settles quickly, although there may be some aching at the back of the lower leg. After the injury, the usual symptoms are a flat-footed type of walk. You can walk and bear weight, but cannot push off the ground properly on the side where the tendon is ruptured. Inability to stand on tiptoe. If the tendon is completely torn, you may feel a gap just above the back of the heel. However, if there is bruising then the swelling may disguise the gap. If you suspect an Achilles tendon rupture, it is best to see a doctor urgently, because the tendon heals better if treated sooner rather than later. A person with a ruptured Achilles tendon may experience one or more of the following. Sudden pain (which feels like a kick or a stab) in the back of the ankle or calf, often subsiding into a dull ache. A popping or snapping sensation. Swelling on the back of the leg between the heel and the calf. Difficulty walking (especially upstairs or uphill) and difficulty rising up on the toes.
A physician usually can make this diagnosis with a good physical examination and history. X-rays usually are not taken. A simple test of squeezing the calf muscles while lying on your stomach should indicate if the tendon is still connected (the foot should point). This test isolates the connection between the calf muscle and tendon and eliminates other tendons that may still allow weak movement. A word of caution, Achilles tendon rupture is often misdiagnosed as a strain or minor tendon injury. Swelling and the continuing ability to weakly point your toes can confuse the diagnosis. Ultrasound and MRI are tests that can assist in difficult diagnosis. Depending on the degree of injury, these tests can also assist in determining which treatment may be best.
Non Surgical Treatment
Nonsurgical treatment involves extended casting, special braces, orthotics, and physical therapy. Avoids the normal complications and expenses of surgery. Some studies show the outcome is similar to surgery in regard to strength and function. There is risk of an over-lengthened tendon with inadequate tension. Extended immobilization can lead to more muscle weakness. Nonsurgical treatment has a higher incidence of re-rupture than surgical repair. Nonsurgical treatment is often used for nonathletes or for those with a general low level of physical activity who would not benefit from surgery. The elderly and those with complicating medical conditions should also consider conservative nonsurgical treatment.
A completely ruptured Achilles tendon requires surgery and up to 12 weeks in a cast. Partial tears are sometimes are treated with surgery following by a cast. Because the tendon shortens as it heals, a heel lift is used for 6 months or more after the cast comes off. Physical therapy to regain flexibility and then strength are begun as soon as the cast is off.
To help reduce your chance of getting Achilles tendon rupture, take the following steps. Do warm-up exercises before an activity and cool down exercises after an activity. Wear proper footwear. Maintain a healthy weight. Rest if you feel pain during an activity. Change your routine. Switch between high-impact activities and low-impact activities. Strengthen your calf muscle with exercises.