The Achilles tendon is situated above the heel and forms the lower part of the calf muscles. It is a continuation of the two calf muscles, the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles, and it attaches to the heel bone. It is the strongest tendon in the human body and must withstand great forces. Its function is to transmit the force produced by the calf muscles to lift the heel and produce the push off during walking, running and jumping. The Achilles can produce force of up to seven times body weight. This shows just how much force it has to withstand during sporting activities, such as sprinting, jumping and turning.
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.
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.
To diagnose an Achilles tendon injury, your health care provider will give you a thorough physical exam. He or she may want to see you walk or run to look for problems that might have contributed to your Achilles tendon injury.
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%.
Your doctor may recommend surgery if you?re young and active, or an athlete. However, this will depend on where your tendon is ruptured. If the rupture is at, or above, the point at which your tendon merges with your calf muscle, for example, surgery may not be possible. There are three main types of surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon. Open surgery. Your surgeon will make one long cut in your leg to reach the tendon and repair it. Limited open surgery. Your surgeon will still make a single cut but it will be shorter. Percutaneous surgery. Your surgeon will make a number of small cuts to reach the tendon and repair it. In all types of surgery, your surgeon will stitch the tendon together so it can heal. Each type of surgery has different risks. Open surgery is less likely to injure one of the nerves in your leg for example, but has a higher risk of infection. Ask your surgeon to explain the risks in more detail. After your operation, you will need to wear a series of casts or an adjustable brace on your leg to help your Achilles tendon heal. This will usually be for between four and eight weeks. There is a chance that your tendon will rupture again after the operation.
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.