The Achilles tendon is situated above the heel and forms the lower part of the calf muscles. It is a continuation of the two calf muscles, the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles, and it attaches to the heel bone. It is the strongest tendon in the human body and must withstand great forces. Its function is to transmit the force produced by the calf muscles to lift the heel and produce the push off during walking, running and jumping. The Achilles can produce force of up to seven times body weight. This shows just how much force it has to withstand during sporting activities, such as sprinting, jumping and turning.
Often an Achilles rupture can occur spontaneously without any prodromal symptoms. Unfortunately the first "pop" or "snap" that you experience is your Achilles tendon rupture. Achilles tendon 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, squash, basketball, soccer, softball and badminton. Achilles rupture 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 over stretching the tendon. You fall from a significant height. It does appear that previous history of Achilles tendonitis results in a degenerative tendon, which can grow weak and thin with age and lack of use. Then it becomes prone to injury or rupture. Certain illnesses (such as arthritis and diabetes) and medications (such as corticosteroids and some antibiotics) can also increase the risk of rupture.
Tendon strain or tendon inflammation (tendonitis) can occur from tendon injury or overuse and can lead to a rupture. Call your doctor if you have signs of minor tendon problems. Minor tenderness and possible swelling increases with activity. There is usually no specific event causing sudden pain and no obvious gap in the tendon. You can still walk or stand on your toes. Acute calf pain and swelling can indicate a tear or partial tear of the Achilles tendon where it meets the calf muscle. You may still be able to use that foot to walk, but you will need to see a specialist such as an orthopedic surgeon. Surgery is not usually done for partial tears. Sometimes special heel pads or orthotics in your shoes may help. Follow up with your doctor to check for tendonitis or strain before resuming activity, because both can increase the risk of tendon rupture. Any acute injury causing pain, swelling, and difficulty with weight-bearing activities such as standing and walking may indicate you have a tear in your Achilles tendon. Seek prompt medical attention from your doctor or emergency department. Do not delay! Early treatment results in better outcome. If you have any question or uncertainty, get it checked.
A diagnosis can be made clinically, but an MRI or ultrasound scan can confirm it. On examination, the patient will present with reduced plantarflexion strength, a positive Thompson test and potentially, a palpable gap in the Achilles. The whole length of the tendon should be examined to check for injuries that can occur at the insertion and the musculotendinous junction.
Non Surgical Treatment
Nonsurgical method is generally undertaken in individuals who are old, inactive, and at high-risk for surgery. Other individuals who should not undergo surgery are those who have a wound infection/ulcer around the heel area. A large group of patients who may not be candidates for surgery include those with diabetes, those with poor blood supply to the foot, patients with nerve problems in the foot, and those who may not comply with rehabilitation. Nonsurgical management involves application of a short leg cast to the affected leg, with the ankle in a slightly flexed position. Maintaining the ankle in this position helps appose the tendons and improves healing. The leg is placed in a cast for six to 10 weeks and no movement of the ankle is allowed. Walking is allowed on the cast after a period of four to six weeks. When the cast is removed, a small heel lift is inserted in the shoe to permit better support for the ankle for an additional two to four weeks. Following this, physical therapy is recommended. The advantages of a nonsurgical approach are no risk of a wound infection or breakdown of skin and no risk of nerve injury. The disadvantages of the nonsurgical approach includes a slightly higher risk of Achilles tendon rupture and the surgery is much more complex if indeed a repair is necessary in future. In addition, the recuperative period after the nonsurgical approach is more prolonged.
Surgery to repair an Achilles tendon rupture is performed under a spinal or general anaesthetic. During surgery the surgeon makes an incision in the skin over the ruptured portion of the tendon. The tendon ends are located and joined together with strong sutures (stitches), allowing the tendon to closely approximate its previous length. The skin is then closed with sutures and the foot is immobilised in a cast or splint, again in the toes-pointed position. Seven to ten days after surgery the cast or splint is removed in order for the sutures in the skin to be removed. Another cast or splint will be applied and will stay in place a further 5 - 7 weeks.
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.