An Achilles tendon rupture is a complete or partial tear that occurs when the tendon is stretched beyond its capacity. Forceful jumping or pivoting, or sudden accelerations of running, can overstretch the tendon and cause a tear. An injury to the tendon can also result from falling or tripping. Achilles tendon ruptures are most often seen in weekend warriors - typically, middle-aged people participating in sports in their spare time. Less commonly, illness or medications, such as steroids or certain antibiotics, may weaken the tendon and contribute to ruptures.
The tendon usually ruptures without any warning. It is most common in men between the ages of 40-50, who play sports intermittently, such as badminton and squash. There was probably some degeneration in the tendon before the rupture which may or may not have been causing symptoms.
The most common initial symptom of Achilles tendon rupture is a sudden snap at the back of the heels with intense pain. Immediately after the rupture, the majority of individuals will have difficult walking. Some individuals may have had previous complains of calf or heel pain, suggesting prior tendon inflammation or irritation. Immediately after an Achilles tendon rupture, most individuals will develop a limp. In addition, when the ankle is moved, the patient will complain of pain. In all cases, the affected ankle will have no strength. Once the Achilles tendon is ruptured, the individual will not be able to run, climb up the stairs, or stand on his toes. The ruptured Achilles tendon prevents the power from the calf muscles to move the heel. Whenever the diagnosis is missed, the recovery is often prolonged. Bruising and swelling around the calf and ankle occur. Achilles tendon rupture is frequent in elderly individuals who have a sedentary lifestyle and suddenly become active. In these individuals, the tendon is not strong and the muscles are deconditioned, making recovery more difficult. Achilles tendon rupture has been reported after injection of corticosteroids around the heel bone or attachment of the tendon. The fluoroquinolone class of antibiotics (such as ciprofloxacin [Cipro]) is also known to cause Achilles tendon weakness and rupture, especially in young children. Some individuals have had a prior tendon rupture that was managed conservatively. In such cases, recurrence of rupture is very high.
In diagnosing an Achilles tendon rupture, the foot and ankle surgeon will ask questions about how and when the injury occurred and whether the patient has previously injured the tendon or experienced similar symptoms. The surgeon will examine the foot and ankle, feeling for a defect in the tendon that suggests a tear. Range of motion and muscle strength will be evaluated and compared to the uninjured foot and ankle. If the Achilles tendon is ruptured, the patient will have less strength in pushing down (as on a gas pedal) and will have difficulty rising on the toes. The diagnosis of an Achilles tendon rupture is typically straightforward and can be made through this type of examination. In some cases, however, the surgeon may order an MRI or other advanced imaging tests.
Non Surgical Treatment
There are two treatment options available which are non-operative and operative. Non-operative treatment involves the use initially of a below-knee plaster with the foot held fully bent downwards. This usually stays in place for 2 weeks then is changed for a brace(this is a boot from the knee down to the toes with Velcro straps) which should be worn day and night. The brace will be regularly altered to allow the foot to come up to a more neutral position. The brace will be on for a further 6 weeks. After the 8 weeks you will be referred for physiotherapy to regain movement and calf strength but will probably need to wear the brace during the day for a further 4 weeks. Non-operative treatment avoids the risks of surgery but the risk of the tendon re-rupturing, which normally occurs within 3 months of discarding the brace, is 10%.
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.
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.