A tendon is a band of tissue that connects a muscle to a bone. The Achilles tendon runs down the back of the lower leg and connects the calf muscle to the heel bone. Also called the "heel cord," the Achilles tendon facilitates walking by helping to raise the heel off the ground. An Achilles tendon rupture is a complete or partial tear that occurs when the tendon is stretched beyond its capacity. Forceful jumping or pivoting, or sudden accelerations of running, can overstretch the tendon and cause a tear. An injury to the tendon can also result from falling or tripping. Achilles tendon ruptures are most often seen in "weekend warriors", typically, middle-aged people participating in sports in their spare time. Less commonly, illness or medications, such as steroids or certain antibiotics, may weaken the tendon and contribute to ruptures.
The Achilles tendon is most commonly injured by sudden plantarflexion or dorsiflexion of the ankle, or by forced dorsiflexion of the ankle outside its normal range of motion. Other mechanisms by which the Achilles can be torn involve sudden direct trauma to the tendon, or sudden activation of the Achilles after atrophy from prolonged periods of inactivity. Some other common tears can occur from overuse while participating in intense sports. Twisting or jerking motions can also contribute to injury. Fluoroquinolone antibiotics, famously ciprofloxacin, are known to increase the risk of tendon rupture, particularly achilles.
You may notice the symptoms come on suddenly during a sporting activity or injury. You might hear a snap or feel a sudden sharp pain when the tendon is torn. The sharp pain usually settles quickly, although there may be some aching at the back of the lower leg. After the injury, the usual symptoms are a flat-footed type of walk. You can walk and bear weight, but cannot push off the ground properly on the side where the tendon is ruptured. Inability to stand on tiptoe. If the tendon is completely torn, you may feel a gap just above the back of the heel. However, if there is bruising then the swelling may disguise the gap. If you suspect an Achilles tendon rupture, it is best to see a doctor urgently, because the tendon heals better if treated sooner rather than later. A person with a ruptured Achilles tendon may experience one or more of the following. Sudden pain (which feels like a kick or a stab) in the back of the ankle or calf, often subsiding into a dull ache. A popping or snapping sensation. Swelling on the back of the leg between the heel and the calf. Difficulty walking (especially upstairs or uphill) and difficulty rising up on the toes.
A staggering 20%-30% of Achilles tendon ruptures are missed. Thompson (calf squeeze) test is 96% sensitive and 93% sensitive. Unfortunately, some health practitioners fail to perform this simple clinical test. Ultrasound examination or an MRI can confirm an Achilles tendon rupture.
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%.
This condition should be diagnosed and treated as soon as possible, because prompt treatment probably improves recovery. You may need to be referred urgently to see a doctor in an orthopaedic department or accident and emergency department. Meanwhile, if a ruptured Achilles tendon is suspected, you should not put any weight on that foot, so do not walk on it at all. A new piece of research found that surgery and conservative treatment actually gave equally good results, when patients were also given early mobilisation treatment using a brace. If an operation is needed, there is a type of surgery called percutaneous, which uses smaller cuts than the traditional operation. This seems to reduce the risk of getting a wound infection. After surgery, a brace seems to be better than a plaster cast in terms of faster recovery and return to normal activities, a lower complication rate and patient preferences.
Here are some suggestions to help to prevent this injury. Corticosteroid medication such as prednisolone, should be used carefully and the dose should be reduced if possible. But note that there are many conditions where corticosteroid medication is important or lifesaving. Quinolone antibiotics should be used carefully in people aged over 60 or who are taking steroids.