An Achilles tendon injury can affect both professional and amateur athletes. The Achilles tendon is one of the longer tendons in your body, stretching from the bones of your heel to your calf muscles. You can feel it, a springy band of tissue at the back of your ankle and above your heel. It allows you to extend your foot and point your toes to the floor. Unfortunately, it’s a commonly injured tendon. Many Achilles tendon injuries are caused by tendinitis, in which the tendon becomes swollen and painful. In a severe Achilles tendon injury, too much force on the tendon can cause it to tear partially or rupture completely.
The tendon is susceptible to injury and can rupture during vigorous activities such as running and jumping. Rupture can also occur as a result of gradual wear. After becoming chronically weakened, it can rupture during non-stress activities like walking.
Typically patients present with sudden onset of pain and swelling in the achilles region, often accompanied by a audible snap during forceful dorsiflexion of the foot. A classic example is that of an unfit ‘weekend warrior’ playing squash. If complete a defect may be felt and the patient will have only minimal plantar flexion against resistance.
If an Achilles tendon rupture is suspected, it is important to consult a doctor straight away so that an accurate diagnosis can be made and appropriate treatment recommended. Until a doctor can be consulted it is important to let the foot hang down with the toes pointed to the ground. This prevents the ends of the ruptured tendon pulling any farther apart. The doctor will take a full medical history, including any previous Achilles tendon injuries and what activity was being undertaken at the time the present injury occurred. The doctor will also conduct a physical examination and will check for swelling, tenderness and range of movement in the lower leg and foot. A noticeable gap may be able to be felt in the tendon at the site of the rupture. This is most obvious just after the rupture has occurred and swelling will eventually make this gap difficult to feel. One test commonly used to confirm an Achilles tendon rupture is the Thomson test. For this test the patient lies face down on an examination table. The doctor then squeezes the calf muscles; an action that would normally cause the foot to point like a ballerina (plantar flexion). When a partial rupture has occurred the foot’s ability to point may be decreased. When a complete rupture has occurred, the foot may not point at all. Ultrasound scanning of the Achilles tendon may also be recommended in order to assist with the diagnosis.
Non Surgical Treatment
Achilles tendon ruptures can be treated non-operatively or operatively. Both of these treatment approaches have advantages and disadvantages. In general, younger patients with no medical problems may tend to do better with operative treatment, whereas patients with significant medical problems or older age may be best served with non-operative treatment. However, the decision of how the Achilles tendon rupture is treated should be based on each individual patient after the advantages and disadvantages of both treatment options are reviewed. It is important to realize that while Achilles tendon ruptures can be treated either non-operatively or operatively, they must be treated. A neglected Achilles tendon rupture (i.e. one where the tendon ends are not kept opposed) will lead to marked problems of the leg in walking, which may eventually lead to other limb and joint problems. Furthermore, late reconstruction of non-treated Achilles tendon rupture is significantly more complex than timely treatment.
Referral to a surgeon for open or percutaneous repair of the tendon is often necessary, followed by an immobilisation period. Functional bracing and early mobilisation are becoming more widely used postoperatively. There is no definitive protocol for this and it may differ, depending on the surgeon. Operative treatment has a reduced chance of re-rupture compared with conservative treatment (3.5% versus 12.6%) and a higher percentage of patients returning to the same level of sporting activity (57% versus 29%). The patient’s desired functional outcome and comorbidities that affect healing will be factors in the decision to operate.
The best treatment of Achilles tendonitis is prevention. Stretching the Achilles tendon before exercise, even at the start of the day, will help to maintain ankle flexibility. Problems with foot mechanics can also lead to Achilles tendonitis. This can often be treated with devices inserted into the shoes such as heel cups, arch supports, and custom orthotics.