Achilles tendon ruptures commonly occur in athletic individuals in their 30s and 40s while performing activities that require sudden acceleration or changes in direction (ex. basketball, tennis, etc.). Patients usually describe a sharp pain in their heel region almost as if they were ?struck in the back of the leg?. The diagnosis of an acute Achilles tendon rupture is made on clinical examination as x-rays will reveal the ankle bones to be normal. The Achilles is the largest and strongest tendon in the body. It is subject to 2-3 times body weight during normal walking so regaining normal Achilles tendon function is critical. Achilles tendon ruptures can be successfully treated non-operatively, or operatively, but they must be treated. Surgical treatment leads to a faster recovery and a lower rate of re-rupture. However, surgery can be associated with very serious complications such as an infection or wound healing problems. For this reason non-operative treatment may be preferable in many individuals, especially those patients with diabetes, vascular disease, and those who are long-term smokers.
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.
Symptoms of an Achilles tendon rupture usually directly follow a traumatic event where the foot is forced in an upward position at the ankle, causing a sudden tight stretch of the Achilles tendon. There can also be a direct blow to the tendon causing a rupture. There is typically a popping feeling or even a popping sound described during the occurance of the rupture. Typically there is pain with swelling in the region. Often the patient is unable to put weight on this foot as there is too much pain.
A typical history as detailed above together with positive clinical examination usually will clinch the diagnosis. In an acute rupture, one can usually feel the gap in the tendon from the rupture. There may be swelling or bruising around the ankle and foot of the injured leg. With the patient lying on the tummy (prone position) with the knee flexed, the examiner should see the ankle and foot flex downwards (plantarward) when squeezing the calf muscles. If there is no movement in the ankle and foot on squeezing the calf muscle, this implies that the calf muscle is no longer attached to the heel bone due to a complete Achilles tendon rupture.
Non Surgical Treatment
Pain medicines can help decrease pain and swelling. A cast may be needed for 2 months or more. Your foot will be positioned in the cast with your toes pointing slightly down. Your caregiver will change your cast and your foot position several times while the tendon heals. Do not move or put weight on your foot until your caregiver tells you it is okay. A leg brace or splint may be needed to help keep your foot from moving while your tendon heals. Heel lifts are wedges put into your shoe or cast. Heel lifts help decrease pressure and keep your foot in the best position for your tendon to heal. Surgery may be needed if other treatments do not work. The edges of your tendon may need to be stitched back together. You may need a graft to patch the tear. A graft is a piece of another tendon or artificial material.
An Achilles tendon rupture is a complete tear of the fibrous tissue that connects the heel to the calf muscle. This is often caused by a sudden movement that overextends the tendon and usually occurs while running or playing sports such as basketball or racquetball. Achilles tendon rupture can affect anyone, but occurs most often in middle-aged men.
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.
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