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.
As with any muscle or tendon in the body, the Achilles tendon can be torn if there is a high force or stress on it. This can happen with activities which involve a forceful push off with the foot, for example, in football, running, basketball, diving, and tennis. The push off movement uses a strong contraction of the calf muscles which can stress the Achilles tendon too much. The Achilles tendon can also be damaged by injuries such as falls, if the foot is suddenly forced into an upward-pointing position, this movement stretches the tendon. Another possible injury is a deep cut at the back of the ankle, which might go into the tendon. Sometimes the Achilles tendon is weak, making it more prone to rupture. Factors that weaken the Achilles tendon are corticosteroid medication (such as prednisolone), mainly if it is used as long-term treatment rather than a short course. Corticosteroid injection near the Achilles tendon. Certain rare medical conditions, such as Cushing?s syndrome, where the body makes too much of its own corticosteroid hormones. Increasing age. Tendonitis (inflammation) of the Achilles tendon. Other medical conditions which can make the tendon more prone to rupture, for example, rheumatoid arthritis, gout and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) - lupus. Certain antibiotic medicines may slightly increase the risk of having an Achilles tendon rupture. These are the quinolone antibiotics such as ciprofloxacin and ofloxacin. The risk of having an Achilles tendon rupture with these antibiotics is actually very low, and mainly applies if you are also taking corticosteroid medication or are over the age of about 60.
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.
Your doctor diagnoses the rupture based on symptoms, history of the injury and physical examination. Your doctor will gently squeeze the calf muscles, if the Achilles tendon is intact, there will be flexion movement of the foot, if it is ruptured, there will be no movement observed.
Non Surgical Treatment
Treatment of the initial injury is with use of ice, elevation, and immobilization. If suspected you should contact your podiatrist or physician. Further treatment with continued immobilization, pain medication, or anti-inflammatory medications may be advised. If casted the foot is usually placed in a plantarflexed position to decrease the stretch on the tendon. As healing progresses the cast is changed to a more dorsiflexed position at the ankle. The casting processes can be up to 8 weeks or more.
The goal of surgery is to realign the two ends of the ruptured tendon to allow healing. There are multiple techniques to accomplish this goal that will vary from surgeon to surgeon. Recovery from this injury is usually very successful with return to full function in approximately 6 months. Post operatively casting is required with the use of crutches or other means to remain non-weightbearing for 4-8 weeks. This is followed by a course of physical therapy. Partial rupture may or may not require surgical intervention depending on the extent of injury but cast immobilization is a common requirement.
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!