The Achilles tendon attaches the calf muscles in the leg to the heel bone. It is the largest yet most exposed tendon in the body. An Achilles tendon rupture injury is when the tendon fibres tear, causing symptoms of pain and loss of function. A rupture can be either partial or complete and treatment may involve surgery. Achilles tendon rupture is most common in weekend athletes trying to train too hard and is least common in well-trained professional athletes. The injury is more common in men than in women and the frequency of rupture increases over the age of 30 years.
The most common cause of a ruptured Achilles' tendon is when too much stress is placed through the tendon, particularly when pushing off with the foot. This may happen when playing sports such as football, basketball or tennis where the foot is dorsiflexed or pushed into an upward position during a fall. If the Achilles' tendon is weak, it is prone to rupture. Various factors can cause weakness, including corticosteroid medication and injections, certain diseases caused by hormone imbalance and tendonitis. Old age can also increase the risk of Achilles' tendon rupture.
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.
The actual area of an Achilles tendon rupture cannot be seen on x-ray. Therefore, although x-rays are often done to rule out bony injuries in individuals with an Achilles tendon rupture these x-rays are usually normal. Diagnostic ultrasound of the tendon can be performed to assess the integrity of the tendon. Other diagnostic tests, such as MRI's, may also be required in difficult cases.
Non Surgical Treatment
Treatment of the initial injury is with use of ice, elevation, and immobilization. If suspected you should contact your podiatrist or physician. Further treatment with continued immobilization, pain medication, or anti-inflammatory medications may be advised. If casted the foot is usually placed in a plantarflexed position to decrease the stretch on the tendon. As healing progresses the cast is changed to a more dorsiflexed position at the ankle. The casting processes can be up to 8 weeks or more.
The patient is positioned prone after administration of either general or regional anesthesia. A longitudinal incision is made on either the medial or lateral aspect of the tendon. If a lateral incision is chosen care must be taken to identify and protect the sural nerve. Length of the incision averages 3 to 10 cm. Once the paratenon is incised longitudinally, the tendon ends are easily identifies. These are then re-approximated with either a Bunnell or Kessler or Krackow type suture technique with nonabsorbable suture. Next, the epitenon is repaired with a cross stitch technique. The paratenon should be repaired if it will be useful to prevent adhesions. Finally, a meticulous skin closure will limit wound complications. An alternative method is to perform a percutaneous technique, with a small incision (ranging from 2-4 cm). A few salient points include: the incision should be extended as needed, no self-retaining retractors should be used, and meticulous paratenon and wound closure is essential. Postoperatively the patient is immobilized in an equinous splint (usually 10?-15?) for 2 weeks. Immobilization may be extended if there is any concern about wound healing. At the 2-week follow-up, full weight bearing is permitted using a solid removable boot. At 6 weeks, aggressive physical therapy is prescribed and the patient uses the boot only for outdoor activity. At 12 weeks postoperatively, no further orthosis is recommended.
Prevention centers on appropriate daily Achilles stretching and pre-activity warm-up. Maintain a continuous level of activity in your sport or work up gradually to full participation if you have been out of the sport for a period of time. Good overall muscle conditioning helps maintain a healthy tendon.