Pain of the Achilles tendon commonly affects both competitive and recreational athletes, and the sedentary. The largest tendon in the body, the Achilles tendon, endures strain and risks rupture from running, jumping, and sudden acceleration or deceleration. Overuse, vascular diseases, neuropathy, and rheumatologic diseases may cause tendon degeneration. The hallmarks of Achilles tendon problems seem to be damaged, weak, inelastic tissue.
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.
Tendon strain or tendon inflammation (tendonitis) can occur from tendon injury or overuse and can lead to a rupture. Call your doctor if you have signs of minor tendon problems. Minor tenderness and possible swelling increases with activity. There is usually no specific event causing sudden pain and no obvious gap in the tendon. You can still walk or stand on your toes. Acute calf pain and swelling can indicate a tear or partial tear of the Achilles tendon where it meets the calf muscle. You may still be able to use that foot to walk, but you will need to see a specialist such as an orthopedic surgeon. Surgery is not usually done for partial tears. Sometimes special heel pads or orthotics in your shoes may help. Follow up with your doctor to check for tendonitis or strain before resuming activity, because both can increase the risk of tendon rupture. Any acute injury causing pain, swelling, and difficulty with weight-bearing activities such as standing and walking may indicate you have a tear in your Achilles tendon. Seek prompt medical attention from your doctor or emergency department. Do not delay! Early treatment results in better outcome. If you have any question or uncertainty, get it checked.
A typical history as detailed above together with positive clinical examination usually will clinch the diagnosis. In an acute rupture, one can usually feel the gap in the tendon from the rupture. There may be swelling or bruising around the ankle and foot of the injured leg. With the patient lying on the tummy (prone position) with the knee flexed, the examiner should see the ankle and foot flex downwards (plantarward) when squeezing the calf muscles. If there is no movement in the ankle and foot on squeezing the calf muscle, this implies that the calf muscle is no longer attached to the heel bone due to a complete Achilles tendon rupture.
Non Surgical Treatment
Non-surgical treatment of Achilles tendon rupture is usually reserved for patients who are relatively sedentary or may be at higher risk for complications with surgical intervention (due to other associated medical problems). This involves a period of immobilization, followed by range of motion and strengthening exercises; unfortunately, it is associated with a higher risk of re-rupture of the tendon, and possibly a less optimal functional outcome.
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.