Achilles tendon rupture is an injury that affects the back of your lower leg. It most commonly occurs in people playing recreational sports. The Achilles tendon is a strong fibrous cord that connects the muscles in the back of your calf to your heel bone. If you overstretch your Achilles tendon, it can tear (rupture). The tendon can rupture completely or just partially. If you have an Achilles tendon rupture, you might feel a pop or snap, followed by an immediate sharp pain in the back of your ankle and lower leg that usually affects your ability to walk properly. Surgery is often the best treatment option to repair an Achilles tendon rupture. For many people, however, nonsurgical treatment works just as well.
The Achilles tendon can grow weak and thin with age and lack of use. Then it becomes prone to injury or rupture. Achilles tendon rupture is more common in those with preexisting tendinitis of the Achilles tendon. Certain illnesses (such as arthritis and diabetes) and medications (such as corticosteroids and some antibiotics, including quinolones such as levofloxacin [Levaquin] and ciprofloxacin [Cipro]) can also increase the risk of rupture. Rupture most commonly occurs in the middle-aged male athlete (the weekend warrior who is engaging in a pickup game of basketball, for example). Injury often occurs during recreational sports that require bursts of jumping, pivoting, and running. Most often these are tennis, racquetball, basketball, and badminton. The injury can happen in the following situations. You make a forceful push-off with your foot while your knee is straightened by the powerful thigh muscles. One example might be starting a foot race or jumping. You suddenly trip or stumble, and your foot is thrust in front to break a fall, forcefully overstretching the tendon. You fall from a significant height or abruptly step into a hole or off of a curb.
It happens suddenly, often without warning. There is often a popping sound when the tendon ruptures. The patient usually feel as if someone has kicked their heel from the rear, only to turn around to find nobody there. There is acute pain and swelling in the back of the heel due to bleeding from the tendon rupture. The patient will have difficulty walking as they cannot toe off without pain. This causes them to walk with a limp.
It is usually possible to detect a complete rupture of the Achilles tendon on the history and examination. A gap may be felt in the tendon, usually 4-5cm above the heel bone. This is the normal site of injury and is called an intra-substance tear. The tear can occur higher up about 10cm above the insertion into the heel at the site where the muscles join the tendon, this is known as a musculo-tendinous tear. A special test will be performed which involves squeezing the calf. Normally if the Achilles tendon is intact this causes the foot to point downwards but if it is ruptured it causes no movement. To confirm the diagnosis and the exact site of the rupture it may be necessary to perform an Ultra-sound or MRI scan.
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.
While it is possible to treat an Achilles tendon rupture without surgery, this is not ideal since the maximum strength of the muscle and tendon rarely returns. The reason is the ends of the tendon are ruptured in a very irregular manner, almost like the ends of a paint brush. As soon as the tendon ruptures, the calf muscle (gastrocnemius muscle) continues to pull on the tendon and the end of the ruptured tendon pulls back into the leg, which is called retraction. Once the tendon retracts, it is never possible to get sufficient strength back without surgery, because the muscle no longer functions at the correct biomechanical length and is now stretched out. There are patients for whom surgery cannot be performed, in particular, due to existing medical conditions that may add to potential for complications following surgery. For these patients, a specially designed boot that positions the foot correctly and takes the pressure and tension off the muscle and tendon is used. Most importantly, a cast is never used because it causes permanent shrinkage (atrophy) of the calf muscle. The special boot permits pressure on the foot with walking. The boot also has a hinge to permit movement of the ankle. Many studies of Achilles tendon ruptures have shown that this movement of the foot in the boot while walking is ideal for tendon healing. If surgery is not recommended, it is essential to obtain special tests to check that the ends of the tendon are lying next to each other so that healing can occur. The best test to do this is an ultrasound and not an MRI.
Achilles tendon rupture can be prevented by avoiding chronic injury to the Achilles tendon (i.e. tendonitis), as well as being careful to warm up and stretch properly before physical activity. Additionally, be sure to use properly fitting equipment (e.g. running shoes) and correct training techniques to avoid this problem!