The Achilles tendon affects your ability to do everything from walking to playing competitive sports. When a patient overstretches his or her Achilles tendon, it can result in a full or partial tear in the tendon, also known as a rupture. In addition to causing a great deal of pain, ruptures can have a profoundly negative impact on your quality of life and prevent you from performing activities you once enjoyed. Because these injuries tend to worsen with time, it?s important to contact a board certified orthopedic surgeon for immediate attention after an Achilles tendon tear.
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.
It is important to know that pain at the back of the heel is not always due to Achilles tendon rupture. It may be due to bursitis (fluid accumulation in the heel due to repeated irritation) and tendonitis (pain along the Achilles tendon due to constant friction and irritation). The above disorders tend to improve with use of pain medications and rest, whereas Achilles tendon rupture requires surgery and/or a cast.
It is usually possible to detect a complete rupture of the Achilles tendon on the history and examination. A gap may be felt in the tendon, usually 4-5cm above the heel bone. This is the normal site of injury and is called an intra-substance tear. The tear can occur higher up about 10cm above the insertion into the heel at the site where the muscles join the tendon, this is known as a musculo-tendinous tear. A special test will be performed which involves squeezing the calf. Normally if the Achilles tendon is intact this causes the foot to point downwards but if it is ruptured it causes no movement. To confirm the diagnosis and the exact site of the rupture it may be necessary to perform an Ultra-sound or MRI scan.
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%.
Surgery is the most common treatment for this condition. An incision is made in the lower leg and the tendon is sewn back together. A cast, splint, walking boot, or brace is worn for 6-8 weeks. One of the benefits of surgery is that it lowers the risk of re-rupturing the tendon. Surgery may also be a better option if you are athletic.
You can help to reduce your risk of an injury to your Achilles tendon by doing the following. When you start a new exercise regime, gradually increase the intensity and the length of time you spend being active. Warm up your muscles before you exercise and cool them down after you have finished. The benefit of stretching before or after exercise is unproven. However, it may help to stretch your calf muscles, which will help to lengthen your Achilles tendon, before you exercise. Wear appropriate and well-fitting shoes when you exercise.