Achilles tendon rupture is an injury that affects the back of your lower leg. It most commonly occurs in people playing recreational sports. The Achilles tendon is a strong fibrous cord that connects the muscles in the back of your calf to your heel bone. If you overstretch your Achilles tendon, it can tear (rupture). The tendon can rupture completely or just partially. If you have an Achilles tendon rupture, you might feel a pop or snap, followed by an immediate sharp pain in the back of your ankle and lower leg that usually affects your ability to walk properly. Surgery is often the best treatment option to repair an Achilles tendon rupture. For many people, however, nonsurgical treatment works just as well.
The tendon usually ruptures without any warning. It is most common in men between the ages of 40-50, who play sports intermittently, such as badminton and squash. There was probably some degeneration in the tendon before the rupture which may or may not have been causing symptoms.
The classic sign of an Achilles' tendon rupture is a short sharp pain in the Achilles' area, which is sometimes accompanied by a snapping sound as the tendon ruptures. The pain usually subsides relatively quickly into an aching sensation. Other signs that are likely to be present subsequent to a rupture are the inability to stand on tiptoe, inability to push the foot off the ground properly resulting in a flat footed walk. With complete tears it may be possible to feel the two ends of tendon where it has snapped, however swelling to the area may mean this is impossible.
Diagnosis is made by clinical history; typically people say it feels like being kicked or shot behind the ankle. Upon examination a gap may be felt just above the heel unless swelling has filled the gap and the Simmonds' test (aka Thompson test) will be positive; squeezing the calf muscles of the affected side while the patient lies prone, face down, with his feet hanging loose results in no movement (no passive plantarflexion) of the foot, while movement is expected with an intact Achilles tendon and should be observable upon manipulation of the uninvolved calf. Walking will usually be severely impaired, as the patient will be unable to step off the ground using the injured leg. The patient will also be unable to stand up on the toes of that leg, and pointing the foot downward (plantarflexion) will be impaired. Pain may be severe, and swelling is common. Sometimes an ultrasound scan may be required to clarify or confirm the diagnosis. MRI can also be used to confirm the diagnosis.
Non Surgical Treatment
Your doctor will advise you exactly when to start your home physical therapy program, what exercises to do, how much, and for how long to continue them. Alphabet Range of Motion exercises. Typically, the first exercise to be started (once out of a non-removable cast). While holding your knee and leg still (or cross your leg), you simply write the letters of the alphabet in an imaginary fashion while moving your foot and ankle (pretend that the tip of your toe is the tip of a pencil). Motion the capital letter A, then B, then C, all the way through Z. Do this exercise three times per day (or as your doctor advises). Freeze a paper cup with water, and then use the ice to massage the tendon area as deeply as tolerated. The massage helps to reduce the residual inflammation and helps to reduce the scarring and bulkiness of the tendon at the injury site. Do the ice massage for 15-20 minutes, three times per day (or as your doctor advises). Calf Strength exercises. This exercise is typically delayed and not used in the initial stages of rehabilitation, begin only when your doctor advises. This exercise is typically done while standing on just the foot of the injured side. Sometimes, the doctor will advise you to start with standing on both feet. Stand on a step with your forefoot on the step and your heel off the step. The heel and forefoot should be level (neither on your tip toes nor with your heel down). Lower your heel very slowly as low as it will go, then rise back up to the level starting position, again very slowly. This is not a fast exercise. Repeat the exercise as tolerated. The number of repetitions may be very limited at first. Progress the number of repetitions as tolerated. Do this exercise one to two times per day (or as your doctor advises).
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.