The Achilles tendon is the confluence of the independent tendons of the gastrocnemius and soleus, which fuse to become the Achilles tendon approximately 5 to 6 cm proximal to its insertion on the posterior surface of the calcaneus. The gastrocnemius and soleus muscles, via the Achilles tendon, function as the chief plantarflexors of the ankle joint. This musculotendinous unit provides the primary propulsive force for walking, running, and jumping. The normal Achilles tendon can withstand repetitive loads near its ultimate tensile strength, which approach 6 to 8 times body weight.
Repeated stress from a variety of causes is often the cause of Achilles tendon injury. The stress may occur from any of the following. Excessive activity or overuse. Flat feet. Poorly fitting or inadequate shoes. Inadequate warm-up or proper conditioning. Jogging or running on hard surfaces. Older recreational athlete. Previous Achilles tendon injury (tendonitis/rupture). Repeated steroid injections. Sudden changes in intensity of exercise. Use of fluoroquinolone antibiotics (especially in children). Trauma to the ankle. Tense calf muscles prior to exercise. Weak calf muscles.
It is important to know that pain at the back of the heel is not always due to Achilles tendon rupture. It may be due to bursitis (fluid accumulation in the heel due to repeated irritation) and tendonitis (pain along the Achilles tendon due to constant friction and irritation). The above disorders tend to improve with use of pain medications and rest, whereas Achilles tendon rupture requires surgery and/or a cast.
Your caregiver will ask what you were doing at the time of your injury. You may need any of the following. A calf-squeeze test is used to check for movement. You will lie on your stomach on a table or bed with your feet hanging over the edge. Your caregiver will squeeze the lower part of each calf. If your foot or ankle do not move, the tendon is torn. An x-ray will show swelling or any broken bones. An ultrasound uses sound waves to show pictures of your tendon on a monitor. An ultrasound may show a tear in the tendon. An MRI takes pictures of your tendon to show damage. You may be given dye to help the tendon show up better. Tell the caregiver if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast dye. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the caregiver if you have any metal in or on your body.
Non Surgical Treatment
Non-surgical management traditionally was selected for minor ruptures, less active patients, and those with medical conditions that prevent them from undergoing surgery. It traditionally consisted of restriction in a plaster cast for six to eight weeks with the foot pointed downwards (to oppose the ends of the ruptured tendon). But recent studies have produced superior results with much more rapid rehabilitation in fixed or hinged boots.
Surgical correction of the ruptured tendon is almost always necessary. Surgery is performed in order to regain the maximum strength of the Achilles, as well as the normal pushing off strength of the foot. The strength of the muscle depends on the correct tension between the muscle and the tendon. The only way the correct tension on the tendon can set is by accurately repairing the tendon ends. When the tendon ruptures, the ends of the tendon separate and multiple little strands of the tendon are present like pieces of spaghetti. There are old fashioned techniques for repairing the tendon which require very long incisions (eight inches) on the back of the leg. These are complicated and associated with a high incidence of infection in the skin after surgery. This is an important consideration, since infection in the skin can lead to devastating problems with the skin and tendon. This problem of skin infection has, in the past, led surgeons away from surgical methods of treatment. Fortunately, now there is a new, unique method available for operating on and repairing the tendon. This new method requires only a tiny incision of one to two centimeters in length. This is far more accurate surgery. Recovery after this procedure is easier and the surgical complication rate is extremely low.
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.