The Achilles tendon is the thickest and strongest tendon in the human body. It plays a very important role in most sport activities and is particularly vulnerable to overloading from repetitive running and jumping. The Achilles tendon forms a joint distal tendon for the gastrocnemius and the soleus muscles. These muscles combine to form the triceps surae muscle. Athletes who sustain Achilles tendon ruptures most frequently are those who participate in ball sports that demand rapid changes of direction and quick, reactive jumps (e.g., tennis, squash, badminton, and soccer), in addition to runners and jumpers in track and field. Sometimes a patient with a ruptured tendon has a history of long-term pain localized to the tendon, but more often the rupture occurs without warning. Such ruptures are often caused by degenerative changes in the tendon (tendinosis), usually in the segment of the tendon that has the worst blood supply. This segment extends from 2 to 6 cm proximal to the insertion of the tendon onto the calcaneus.
Your Achilles tendon helps you point your foot downward, rise on your toes and push off your foot as you walk. You rely on it virtually every time you move your foot. Rupture usually occurs in the section of the tendon located within 2 1/2 inches (about 6 centimeters) of the point where it attaches to the heel bone. This section may be predisposed to rupture because it gets less blood flow, which also may impair its ability to heal. Ruptures often are caused by a sudden increase in the amount of stress on your Achilles tendon. Common examples include increasing the intensity of sports participation, especially in sports that involve jumping, falling from a height, stepping into a hole.
Symptoms usually come on gradually. Depending on the severity of the injury, they can include Achilles pain, which increases with specific activity, with local tenderness to touch. A sensation that the tendon is grating or cracking when moved. Swelling, heat or redness around the area. The affected tendon area may appear thicker in comparison to the unaffected side. There may be weakness when trying to push up on to the toes. The tendon can feel very stiff first thing in the morning (care should be taken when getting out of bed and when making the first few steps around the house). A distinct gap in the line of the tendon (partial tear).
The diagnosis is usually made on the basis of symptoms, the history of the injury and a doctor's examination. The doctor may look at your walking and observe whether you can stand on tiptoe. She/he may test the tendon using a method called Thompson's test (also known as the calf squeeze test). In this test, you will be asked to lie face down on the examination bench and to bend your knee. The doctor will gently squeeze the calf muscles at the back of your leg, and observe how the ankle moves. If the Achilles tendon is OK, the calf squeeze will make the foot point briefly away from the leg (a movement called plantar flexion). This is quite an accurate test for Achilles tendon rupture. If the diagnosis is uncertain, an ultrasound or MRI scan may help. An Achilles tendon rupture is sometimes difficult to diagnose and can be missed on first assessment. It is important for both doctors and patients to be aware of this and to look carefully for an Achilles tendon rupture if it is suspected.
Non Surgical Treatment
Two treatment options are casting or surgery. If an Achilles tendon rupture is untreated then it may not heal properly and could lead to loss of strength. Decisions about treatment options should be made on an individual basis. Non-surgical management traditionally is selected for minor ruptures, less active patients, and those with medical conditions that prevent them from undergoing surgery. The goal of casting is to allow the tendon to slowly heal over time. The foot and ankle are positioned to bring the torn ends of the tendon close together. Casting or bracing for up to 12 weeks or more may be necessary. This method can be effective and avoids some risks, such as infection, associated with surgery. However, the likelihood of re-rupture may be higher with a non-surgical approach and recovery can take longer.
Surgery to repair an Achilles tendon rupture is performed under a spinal or general anaesthetic. During surgery the surgeon makes an incision in the skin over the ruptured portion of the tendon. The tendon ends are located and joined together with strong sutures (stitches), allowing the tendon to closely approximate its previous length. The skin is then closed with sutures and the foot is immobilised in a cast or splint, again in the toes-pointed position. Seven to ten days after surgery the cast or splint is removed in order for the sutures in the skin to be removed. Another cast or splint will be applied and will stay in place a further 5 - 7 weeks.
To reduce your chance of developing Achilles tendon problems, follow the following tips. Stretch and strengthen calf muscles. Stretch your calf to the point at which you feel a noticeable pull but not pain. Don't bounce during a stretch. Calf-strengthening exercises can also help the muscle and tendon absorb more force and prevent injury. Vary your exercises. Alternate high-impact sports, such as running, with low-impact sports, such as walking, biking or swimming. Avoid activities that place excessive stress on your Achilles tendons, such as hill running and jumping activities. Choose running surfaces carefully. Avoid or limit running on hard or slippery surfaces. Dress properly for cold-weather training and wear well-fitting athletic shoes with proper cushioning in the heels. Increase training intensity slowly. Achilles tendon injuries commonly occur after abruptly increasing training intensity. Increase the distance, duration and frequency of your training by no more than 10 percent each week.