Achilles tendon ruptures commonly occur in athletic individuals in their 30s and 40s while performing activities that require sudden acceleration or changes in direction (ex. basketball, tennis, etc.). Patients usually describe a sharp pain in their heel region almost as if they were ?struck in the back of the leg?. The diagnosis of an acute Achilles tendon rupture is made on clinical examination as x-rays will reveal the ankle bones to be normal. The Achilles is the largest and strongest tendon in the body. It is subject to 2-3 times body weight during normal walking so regaining normal Achilles tendon function is critical. Achilles tendon ruptures can be successfully treated non-operatively, or operatively, but they must be treated. Surgical treatment leads to a faster recovery and a lower rate of re-rupture. However, surgery can be associated with very serious complications such as an infection or wound healing problems. For this reason non-operative treatment may be preferable in many individuals, especially those patients with diabetes, vascular disease, and those who are long-term smokers.
Common causes of an Achilles tendon rupture include the progression of or the final result of longstanding Achilles tendonitis or an overuse injury. An injury to the ankle or a direct blow to the Achilles tendon. As a result of a fall where an individual lands awkwardly or directly on the ankle. Laceration of the tendon. Weakness of the gastrocnemius or soleus muscles in people with existing Achilles tendonitis places increased stress on the tendon. Steroid use has been linked to tendon weakness. Certain systemic diseases have been associated with tendon weakness. A sudden deceleration or stopping motions that cause an acute traumatic injury of the ankle. Injection of steroids to the involved tendon or the excessive use of steroids has been known to weaken tendons and make them susceptible to rupture. Contraction of the calf muscles while the foot is dorsiflexed (pointed toward the head) and the lower leg is moving forward.
The most common symptom of Achilles tendonitis is a sudden surge of pain in the heel and back of the ankle at the point of injury which is often described as a snapping sensation in the heel. After the injury has occurred, patients then struggle or find it near impossible to bear any weight on the affected leg. Pain can often be most prominent first thing in the morning after the injury has been rested. Swelling and tenderness is also likely to appear in the area.
Some patients mistakenly believe the tendon is working if they can push the foot down, however, patients will usually be able to move the foot up and down while sitting because the other surrounding muscles and tendons are still intact. Trying to push up while standing and applying body weight to the foot will reveal the true weakness. Sensation and circulation to the foot and ankle will be normal. In addition, x-rays will be normal unless the Achilles injury involves pulling off (avulsion) of the bone on the calcaneus (heel bone). This is quite rare, occurring in only a small fraction of patients with Achilles injuries. Patients suffering this type of Achilles avulsion injury tend to be older with weaker bone. Imaging Studies. Plain x-rays will be negative in patients who have suffered an Achilles tendon rupture. The rupture can be seen on ultrasound or MRI. However, these studies are not indicated for acute ruptures unless there is some uncertainty about the diagnosis. For chronic problems of the Achilles or ruptures that are old, an MRI may be very helpful.
Non Surgical Treatment
The treatments of Achilles tendonitis include resting the painful Achilles tendon will allow the inflammation to subside and allow for healing. A period of rest after the onset of symptoms is important in controlling Achilles tendonitis. In patients who have more significant symptoms, a period of immobilization can help. Either a removable walking boot or a cast can allow the inflamed tendon to cool down quickly. A heel wedge can be inserted into the shoe to minimize the stress on the Achilles tendon. These can be placed in both athletic and work shoes. Applying ice to the area of inflammation can help stimulate blood flow to the area and relieve the pain associated with inflammation. Apply ice several times a day, including after exercise. The pain and swelling most commonly associated with Achilles tendonitis can be improved with non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) which include Celebrex?, Advil?, Motrin?, Naprosyn?. Be sure to consult your physician before starting any medications. Physical therapists can help formulate a stretching and rehabilitation program to improve flexibility of the Achilles tendon. Cortisone injections should not be used for Achilles tendonitis. Studies have shown an increased incidence of Achilles tendon rupture after cortisone injections.
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.