Achilles Tendon Rupture Healing Process
Achilles tendon ruptures commonly occur in athletic individuals in their 30s and 40s while performing activities that require sudden acceleration or changes in direction (ex. basketball, tennis, etc.). Patients usually describe a sharp pain in their heel region almost as if they were ?struck in the back of the leg?. The diagnosis of an acute Achilles tendon rupture is made on clinical examination as x-rays will reveal the ankle bones to be normal. The Achilles is the largest and strongest tendon in the body. It is subject to 2-3 times body weight during normal walking so regaining normal Achilles tendon function is critical. Achilles tendon ruptures can be successfully treated non-operatively, or operatively, but they must be treated. Surgical treatment leads to a faster recovery and a lower rate of re-rupture. However, surgery can be associated with very serious complications such as an infection or wound healing problems. For this reason non-operative treatment may be preferable in many individuals, especially those patients with diabetes, vascular disease, and those who are long-term smokers.
The most common cause of a ruptured Achilles' tendon is when too much stress is placed through the tendon, particularly when pushing off with the foot. This may happen when playing sports such as football, basketball or tennis where the foot is dorsiflexed or pushed into an upward position during a fall. If the Achilles' tendon is weak, it is prone to rupture. Various factors can cause weakness, including corticosteroid medication and injections, certain diseases caused by hormone imbalance and tendonitis. Old age can also increase the risk of Achilles' tendon rupture.
A sudden and severe pain may be felt at the back of the ankle or calf, often described as "being hit by a rock or shot" or "like someone stepped onto the back of my ankle." The sound of a loud pop or snap may be reported. A gap or depression may be felt and seen in the tendon about 2 inches above the heel bone. Initial pain, swelling, and stiffness may be followed by bruising and weakness. The pain may decrease quickly, and smaller tendons may retain the ability to point the toes. Without the Achilles tendon, though, this would be very difficult. Standing on tiptoe and pushing off when walking will be impossible. A complete tear is more common than a partial tear.
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 it has ruptured completely. The doctor may also ask you to kneel on a chair or lie on your stomach with your feet hanging over the end of the exam table. He or she may then squeeze your calf muscle to see if your foot will automatically flex. If it doesn't, you probably have ruptured your Achilles tendon. If there's a question about the extent of your Achilles tendon injury, whether it's completely or only partially ruptured, your doctor may order an ultrasound or MRI scan. These painless procedures create images of the tissues of your body.
Non Surgical Treatment
Once a diagnosis of Achilles tendon rupture has been confirmed, a referral to an orthopaedic specialist for treatment will be recommended. Treatment for an Achilles tendon rupture aims to facilitate the torn ends of the tendon healing back together again. Treatment may be non-surgical (conservative) or surgical. Factors such as the site and extent of the rupture, the time since the rupture occurred and the preferences of the specialist and patient will be considered when deciding which treatment will be undertaken. Some cases of rupture that have not responded well to non-surgical treatment may require surgery at a later stage. The doctor will immobilise the ankle in a cast or a special hinged splint (known as a ?moon boot?) with the foot in a toes-pointed position. The cast or splint will stay in place for 6 - 8 weeks. The cast will be checked and may be changed during this time.
Operative treatment involves a 6cm incision along the inner side of the tendon. The torn ends are then strongly stitched together with the correct tension. After the operation a below knee half cast is applied for 2 weeks. At 2 weeks a brace will be applied that will allow you to move the foot and fully weight-bear for a further 6 weeks. After this you will need physiotherapy. Surgery carries the general risks of any operation but the risk of re-rupture is greatly reduced to 2%. The best form of treatment is controversial with good results being obtained by both methods but surgery is generally recommended for patients under 60 years of age who are fit and active with an intra-substance tear.