The Achilles tendon is the largest and most vulnerable tendon in the body. It joins the gastrocnemius (calf) and the soleus muscles of the lower leg to heel of the foot. The gastrocnemius muscle crosses the knee, the ankle, and the subtalar joints and can create stress and tension in the Achilles tendon . Tendons are strong, but not very flexible so they can only so far before they get inflammed and tear or rupture.
Ruptured Achilles tendons may result from falling from a height or down a hole. Increasing training intensity abruptly, boosting distance, frequency or duration by more than 10% a week. Failing to stretch before and after exercise. Repetitive training, especially uphill running. Deyhydration, which causes cramping and tightness in the calves. Taking antibiotics. Improper footwear. Explosive movements in competitive sports like basketball, soccer or track & field.
Many people say that a ruptured Achilles feels like ?being shot in the heel?, if you can imagine how enjoyable that feels. You may hear a snap sound or feel a sudden sharp pain when the tendon tears. After a few moments, the pain settles and the back of the lower leg aches. You can walk and bear weight, but you may find it difficult to point the foot downward or push off the ground on the affected side. You will be unable to stand on tiptoe. Bruising and swelling are likely, and persistent pain will be present. Similar symptoms may be caused by an inflamed Achilles tendon (Achilles tendonitis), a torn calf muscle, arthritis of the ankle, or deep vein thrombosis in the calf, so an MRI or ultrasound scan will likely be used to diagnose your condition.
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
Initial treatment for sprains and strains should occur as soon as possible. Remember RICE! Rest the injured part. Pain is the body's signal to not move an injury. Ice the injury. This will limit the swelling and help with the spasm. Compress the injured area. This again, limits the swelling. Be careful not to apply a wrap so tightly that it might act as a tourniquet and cut off the blood supply. Elevate the injured part. This lets gravity help reduce the swelling by allowing fluid and blood to drain downhill to the heart. Over-the-counter pain medication is an option. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is helpful for pain, but ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil, Nuprin) might be better, because these medications relieve both pain and inflammation. Remember to follow the guidelines on the bottle for appropriate amounts of medicine, especially for children and teens.
While it is possible to treat an Achilles tendon rupture without surgery, this is not ideal since the maximum strength of the muscle and tendon rarely returns. The reason is the ends of the tendon are ruptured in a very irregular manner, almost like the ends of a paint brush. As soon as the tendon ruptures, the calf muscle (gastrocnemius muscle) continues to pull on the tendon and the end of the ruptured tendon pulls back into the leg, which is called retraction. Once the tendon retracts, it is never possible to get sufficient strength back without surgery, because the muscle no longer functions at the correct biomechanical length and is now stretched out. There are patients for whom surgery cannot be performed, in particular, due to existing medical conditions that may add to potential for complications following surgery. For these patients, a specially designed boot that positions the foot correctly and takes the pressure and tension off the muscle and tendon is used. Most importantly, a cast is never used because it causes permanent shrinkage (atrophy) of the calf muscle. The special boot permits pressure on the foot with walking. The boot also has a hinge to permit movement of the ankle. Many studies of Achilles tendon ruptures have shown that this movement of the foot in the boot while walking is ideal for tendon healing. If surgery is not recommended, it is essential to obtain special tests to check that the ends of the tendon are lying next to each other so that healing can occur. The best test to do this is an ultrasound and not an MRI.