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.
A rupture occurs when a patient overstretches the Achilles tendon, an act which causes it to tear partially or completely. Achilles tendon ruptures can occur during athletic play or any time the tendon is stretched in an unexpected way.
Symptoms include a sudden sharp pain in the achilles tendon which is often described as if being physically struck by an object or implement. A loud snapping noise or bang may also be heard at the time. A gap of 4 to 5 cm in the tendon can be felt which may be less obvious later as swelling increases. After a short while the athlete may be able to walk again but without the power to push off with the foot. There will be a significant loss of strength in the injured leg and the patient will be unable to stand on tip toes. There may be considerable swelling around the achilles tendon and a positive result for Thompson's test can help confirm the diagnosis.
During the physical exam, your doctor will inspect your lower leg for tenderness and swelling. In many cases, doctors can feel a gap in your tendon if a complete rupture has occurred. Achilles tendon rupture can be diagnosed reliably with clinical examination, but if there?s a question about the extent of your Achilles tendon injury then your doctor may order a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.
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%.
Regaining Achilles tendon function after an injury is critical for walking. The goal of Achilles tendon repair is to reconnect the calf muscles with the heel bone to restore push-off strength. Those best suited for surgical repair of an acute or chronic Achilles tendon rupture include healthy, active people who want to return to activities such as jogging, running, biking, etc. Even those who are less active may be candidates for surgical repair. Non-operative treatment may also be an option. The decision to operate should be discussed with your orthopaedic foot and ankle surgeon.
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.