Many of the muscles that move the foot are found in the lower leg. These muscles attach via tendons to various bones in the foot. The main muscles that move the foot downwards (plantar flex the foot) and propel the body forward are the calf muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus muscles). These muscles are connected to the heel bone (calcaneus) by the "rope like" Achilles tendon. Achilles tendon rupture is the term used to describe a complete tear of the Achilles tendon. The most common site for Achilles tendon rupture to occur is an area 2 - 6 cm. (1 - 2.5 in.) above where the tendon attaches to the calcaneus.
The most common cause of a ruptured Achilles' tendon is when too much stress is placed through the tendon, particularly when pushing off with the foot. This may happen when playing sports such as football, basketball or tennis where the foot is dorsiflexed or pushed into an upward position during a fall. If the Achilles' tendon is weak, it is prone to rupture. Various factors can cause weakness, including corticosteroid medication and injections, certain diseases caused by hormone imbalance and tendonitis. Old age can also increase the risk of Achilles' tendon rupture.
A sudden and severe pain may be felt at the back of the ankle or calf, often described as "being hit by a rock or shot" or "like someone stepped onto the back of my ankle." The sound of a loud pop or snap may be reported. A gap or depression may be felt and seen in the tendon about 2 inches above the heel bone. Initial pain, swelling, and stiffness may be followed by bruising and weakness. The pain may decrease quickly, and smaller tendons may retain the ability to point the toes. Without the Achilles tendon, though, this would be very difficult. Standing on tiptoe and pushing off when walking will be impossible. A complete tear is more common than a partial tear.
Some patients mistakenly believe the tendon is working if they can push the foot down, however, patients will usually be able to move the foot up and down while sitting because the other surrounding muscles and tendons are still intact. Trying to push up while standing and applying body weight to the foot will reveal the true weakness. Sensation and circulation to the foot and ankle will be normal. In addition, x-rays will be normal unless the Achilles injury involves pulling off (avulsion) of the bone on the calcaneus (heel bone). This is quite rare, occurring in only a small fraction of patients with Achilles injuries. Patients suffering this type of Achilles avulsion injury tend to be older with weaker bone. Imaging Studies. Plain x-rays will be negative in patients who have suffered an Achilles tendon rupture. The rupture can be seen on ultrasound or MRI. However, these studies are not indicated for acute ruptures unless there is some uncertainty about the diagnosis. For chronic problems of the Achilles or ruptures that are old, an MRI may be very helpful.
Non Surgical Treatment
As debilitating as they can be, the good news is that minor to moderate Achilles tendon injuries should heal on their own. You just need to give them time. To speed the healing, you can try the following. Rest your leg. Avoid putting weight on your leg as best you can. You may need crutches. Ice your leg. To reduce pain and swelling, ice your injury for 20 to 30 minutes, every three to four hours for two to three days, or until the pain is gone. Compress your leg. Use an elastic bandage around the lower leg and ankle to keep down swelling. Elevate your leg. Prop you leg up on a pillow when you're sitting or lying down. Take anti-inflammatory painkillers. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve) will help with pain and swelling. However, these drugs have side effects, such as an increased risk of bleeding and ulcers. They should be used only occasionally unless your health care provider says otherwise and should be taken with food. Check with your doctor before taking these if you have any allergies, medical problems or take any other medication. Use a heel lift. Your health care provider may recommend that you wear an insert in your shoe while you recover. It will help protect your Achilles tendon from further stretching. Practice stretching and strengthening exercises as recommended by your health care provider. Usually, these techniques will do the trick. But in severe cases of Achilles tendon injury, you may need a cast for six to 10 weeks or even surgery to repair the tendon or remove excess tissue.
Surgery may be indicated directly following injury rather than conservative care. Repair of an achilles tendon rupture is greatly varied for each clinical situation. There may be a direct repair of the ends of the tendon with suture, or possibly a tendon graft used to augment the tendon. Post-operatively, the period of immobilization will depend on the size of the defect that was repaired and how it was completed. Usually the immobilization is between 6-10 weeks. This repair may allow for a complete return to normal function, but in many instances the healing is complicated with adhesions and a partial loss of range of motion. There may be a continued soft tissue defect noted and a permanent or prolonged swelling.