The Achilles tendon is the large cord like structure on the back of the leg just above the heel. It is the largest tendon in the body and has a tremendous amount of force transmitted through it during walking, running and jumping activities. The Achilles tendon is prone to injury, including rupture during periods of increased stress and activity. Common activities causing injury include running, basketball, baseball, football, soccer, volleyball and tennis. These activities require jumping and pushing forces that are possible due to the strength of the calf musculature and the ability of the Achilles tendon to endure this stress. Men from the ages of 30-50 are the most commonly injured during weekend athletic activities.
The Achilles tendon usually ruptures as a result of a sudden forceful contraction of the calf muscles. Activities such as jumping, lunging, or sprinting can cause undue stress on the Achilles tendon and cause it to rupture. Often there is a background of Achilles tendinitis. Direct trauma to the area, poor flexibility or weakness of the calf muscles or of the Achilles tendon and increasing age are some of the other factors that are associated with an Achilles tendon rupture.
Patients with an Achilles tendon rupture frequently present with complaints of a sudden snap in the lower calf associated with acute, severe pain. The patient reports feeling like he or she has been shot, kicked, or cut in the back of the leg, which may result in an inability to ambulate further. A patient with Achilles tendon rupture will be unable to stand on his or her toes on the affected side.
Other less serious causes of pain in the back of the lower leg include Achilles tendonitis or bursitis. To distinguish between these possibilities, your physician will take a thorough history and examine your lower leg to look for signs of a rupture. The presence of a defect in the tendon that can be felt, evidence of weakness with plantarflexion, and a history consistent with Achilles tendon rupture are usually sufficient for diagnosis. Your physician may also perform a ?Thompson test,? which consists of squeezing the calf muscles of the affected leg. With an intact Achilles tendon, the foot will bend downward; however, with a complete rupture of the tendon, the foot will not move. In cases where the diagnosis is equivocal, your physician may order an MRI of the leg to diagnose a rupture of the Achilles tendon.
Non Surgical Treatment
Not every torn Achilles tendon needs an operation. Recent studies have shown that even a conservative treatment, i.e. immobilizingt the leg can lead to satisfactory healing successes. This requires, however, that the patient is fitted with a cast (immobilization splint) and/or a special boot for a period of approximately 6 - 8 weeks. After that, the boot must be worn during the day for about two more weeks. An intensive physiotherapy will start after about six weeks to train the calf muscles so that the initial coordination can be restored. Running training on flat ground can be started again after another 10 - 12 weeks. Studies show that the danger of a recurring torn tendon is higher after a conservative treatment opposed to an operative treatment. Depending on the type of treatment, about 10 - 15 percent of those affected can expect at some point to again suffer from a tear of the Achilles tendon. Moreover, in the non-operated cases, we see more often a significant permanent weakness of the footprint, particularly restricting the ability to participate in sports.
Your doctor may recommend surgery if you?re young and active, or an athlete. However, this will depend on where your tendon is ruptured. If the rupture is at, or above, the point at which your tendon merges with your calf muscle, for example, surgery may not be possible. There are three main types of surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon. Open surgery. Your surgeon will make one long cut in your leg to reach the tendon and repair it. Limited open surgery. Your surgeon will still make a single cut but it will be shorter. Percutaneous surgery. Your surgeon will make a number of small cuts to reach the tendon and repair it. In all types of surgery, your surgeon will stitch the tendon together so it can heal. Each type of surgery has different risks. Open surgery is less likely to injure one of the nerves in your leg for example, but has a higher risk of infection. Ask your surgeon to explain the risks in more detail. After your operation, you will need to wear a series of casts or an adjustable brace on your leg to help your Achilles tendon heal. This will usually be for between four and eight weeks. There is a chance that your tendon will rupture again after the operation.