Coping With An Achilles Tendon Rupture

Overview

Achilles Tendon

The Achilles tendon is the largest and strongest tendon in the body. It functions to help control the foot when walking and running. Ruptures of the Achilles tendon commonly occur in individuals in their 30s and 40s. This age group is affected because these patients are still quite active, but over time their tendons tend to become stiffer and gradually weaken. These ruptures usually occur when an athlete loads the Achilles in preparation to pushing off. This can occur when suddenly changing directions, starting to run, or preparing to jump. These ruptures occur because the calf muscle generates tremendous force through the Achilles tendon in the process of propelling the body. Patients will feel a sharp intense pain in the back of their heel. Patients often initially think that they were ?struck in the back of the heel? and then realize that there was no one around them. After the injury, patients will have some swelling. If they can walk at all, it will be with a marked limp. It is very rare that a rupture of the Achilles is partial. However, a painful Achilles tendonitis or a partial rupture of the calf muscle (gastrocnemius) as it inserts into the Achilles can also cause pain in this area. The pain of an Achilles rupture can subside quickly and this injury may be misdiagnosed in the Emergency Department as a sprain. Important clues to the diagnosis are an inability to push off with the foot and a visible or palpable defect just above the heel bone in the back of the leg.

Causes

The Achilles tendon usually ruptures as a result of a sudden forceful contraction of the calf muscles. Activities such as jumping, lunging, or sprinting can cause undue stress on the Achilles tendon and cause it to rupture. Often there is a background of Achilles tendinitis. Direct trauma to the area, poor flexibility or weakness of the calf muscles or of the Achilles tendon and increasing age are some of the other factors that are associated with an Achilles tendon rupture.

Symptoms

Patients often describe a feeling of being kicked or hit with a baseball bat in the back of the heel during athletic activity. They are unable to continue the activity and have an extreme loss of strength with the inability to effectively walk. On physical examination there is often a defect that can be felt in the tendon just above the heel. A diagnosis of an Achilles tendon rupture is commonly made on physical exam. An MRI may be ordered to confirm the suspicion of a tear or to determine the extent of the tear.

Diagnosis

During the clinical examination, the patient will have significantly reduced ankle plantar flexion strength on the involved side. When the tendon is palpated with one finger on either side, the tendon can be followed from the calcaneus to where it "disappears" in the area of the rupture and to where it then returns 2 to 3 cm proximal to the rupture. If the injury is recent, the patient indicates that her pain is localized at the site of the rupture. The defect eventually fills with blood and edema and the skin over the area becomes ecchymotic.

Non Surgical Treatment

A medical professional will take MRI scans to confirm the diagnosis and indicate the extent of the injury. Sometimes the leg is put in a cast and allowed to heal without surgery. This is generally not the preferred method, particularly for young active people. Surgery is the most common treatment for an achilles tendon rupture.

Achilles Tendonitis

Surgical Treatment

Thanks to a new surgical technique, operative procedures are often more beneficial.The operative treatment of Achilles tendon ruptures has significantly changed in recent years. The objective today is to connect the torn tendons using modern suture and possibly adhesive materials. Through small surgical incisions the ends of the torn tendon are surgically exposed, and sutures are used to tie the ends permanently together. Thus, the operated repaired tendon is again resilient within a reasonable time. The cast treatment and walking on crutches required in the past, is with this procedure usually not necessary. Instead, functional treatment following the surgery involves wearing a special boot, meaning that the patient can put weight onto the operated leg again within a few days after surgery. Physical therapy training will start immediately following the operation. The philosophy behind such an early functional treatment is that tissue adequately adapts to stress and thus accelerates the healing process. For the patient, the modern surgical treatment of an Achilles tendon rupture has the distinct advantage that no prolonged hospital stay is necessary. Hospital stay usually lasts only a few days. Using crutches, patients can return to work soon after the surgery.

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