The Achilles tendon is the extension from the two large muscles in the calf region, the gastrocnemius and the soleus. These two muscles combine to form the Achilles tendon. The tendon forms in the lower one third of the leg and extends to the back of the heel bone (calcaneus). When the muscles of the calf contract this produces tension on the Achilles tendon pulling on the back of heel causing the heel to rise and the foot to point downward. It is during this motion that high-tension force is transmitted through the Achilles tendon during pushing and jumping activity. This high tension force can cause the Achilles tendon to tear or rupture. This happens in 3 common locations. The most common location for a tendon tear is within the tendon substance just above the heel. The second and third most common locations are where the Achilles tendon attaches into the heel bone and higher in the leg, where the tendon begins.
The Achilles tendon can grow weak and thin with age and lack of use. Then it becomes prone to injury or rupture. Achilles tendon rupture is more common in those with preexisting tendinitis of the Achilles tendon. Certain illnesses (such as arthritis and diabetes) and medications (such as corticosteroids and some antibiotics, including quinolones such as levofloxacin [Levaquin] and ciprofloxacin [Cipro]) can also increase the risk of rupture. Rupture most commonly occurs in the middle-aged male athlete (the weekend warrior who is engaging in a pickup game of basketball, for example). Injury often occurs during recreational sports that require bursts of jumping, pivoting, and running. Most often these are tennis, racquetball, basketball, and badminton. The injury can happen in the following situations. You make a forceful push-off with your foot while your knee is straightened by the powerful thigh muscles. One example might be starting a foot race or jumping. You suddenly trip or stumble, and your foot is thrust in front to break a fall, forcefully overstretching the tendon. You fall from a significant height or abruptly step into a hole or off of a curb.
If you rupture your Achilles tendon, you may hear a snapping or popping sound when it happens. You will feel a sudden and sharp pain in your heel or calf (lower leg). It might feel like you have been kicked or hit in the back of your leg. You may also have swelling in your calf. be unable to put your full weight on your ankle, be unable to stand on tiptoe, or climb stairs, have bruising around the area. If you have any of these symptoms and believe you have ruptured your Achilles tendon, go straight to accident and emergency at your local hospital. If you partially rupture your Achilles tendon, the tear may only be small. Symptoms of pain and stiffness may come on quite suddenly like a complete rupture, but may settle over a few days.
Your doctor diagnoses the rupture based on symptoms, history of the injury and physical examination. Your doctor will gently squeeze the calf muscles, if the Achilles tendon is intact, there will be flexion movement of the foot, if it is ruptured, there will be no movement observed.
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).
The surgical repair of an acute or chronic rupture of the Achilles tendon typically occurs in an outpatient setting. This means the patient has surgery and goes home the same day. Numbing medicine is often placed into the leg around the nerves to help decrease pain after surgery. This is called a nerve block. Patients are then put to sleep and placed in a position that allows the surgeon access to the ruptured tendon. Repair of an acute rupture often takes somewhere between 30 minutes and one hour. Repair of a chronic rupture can take longer depending on the steps needed to fix the tendon.