The Achilles tendon is the thickest and strongest tendon in the human body. It plays a very important role in most sport activities and is particularly vulnerable to overloading from repetitive running and jumping. The Achilles tendon forms a joint distal tendon for the gastrocnemius and the soleus muscles. These muscles combine to form the triceps surae muscle. Athletes who sustain Achilles tendon ruptures most frequently are those who participate in ball sports that demand rapid changes of direction and quick, reactive jumps (e.g., tennis, squash, badminton, and soccer), in addition to runners and jumpers in track and field. Sometimes a patient with a ruptured tendon has a history of long-term pain localized to the tendon, but more often the rupture occurs without warning. Such ruptures are often caused by degenerative changes in the tendon (tendinosis), usually in the segment of the tendon that has the worst blood supply. This segment extends from 2 to 6 cm proximal to the insertion of the tendon onto the calcaneus.
Achilles tendon ruptures are most likely to occur in sports requiring sudden stretching, such as sprinting and racquet sports. Achilles tendon ruptures can happen to anyone, but are most likely to occur to middle age athletes who have not been training or who have been doing relatively little training. Common sporting activities related to Achilles tendon rupture include, badminton, tennis, squash. Less common sporting activities that can lead to Achilles tendon rupture include: TKD, soccer etc. Occasionally the sufferer may have a history of having had pain in the Achilles tendon in the past and was treated with steroid injection to around the tendon by a doctor. This can lead to weakening of the tendon predisposing it to complete rupture. Certain antibiotics taken by mouth or by intravenous route can weaken the Achilles tendon predisposing it to rupture. An example would be the quinolone group of antibiotics. An common example is Ciprofloxacin (or Ciprobay).
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.
A consultation and physical exam with a qualified musculoskeletal expert is the first step. X-ray or MRI scanning may be required for a diagnosis. Once a rupture is diagnosed it should be treated to prevent loss of strength and inadequate healing.
Non Surgical Treatment
There is no definitive protocol for conservative management. Traditionally, conservative treatment involved immobilisation in a cast or boot, with initial non-weight bearing. Recently, good results have been achieved with functional bracing and early mobilisation, and it is common to be immediately weight-bearing in an orthotic. Conservative management reduces the chance of complications, such as infection. There is a risk the tendon can heal too long and more slowly.
While it is possible to treat an Achilles tendon rupture without surgery, this is not ideal since the maximum strength of the muscle and tendon rarely returns. The reason is the ends of the tendon are ruptured in a very irregular manner, almost like the ends of a paint brush. As soon as the tendon ruptures, the calf muscle (gastrocnemius muscle) continues to pull on the tendon and the end of the ruptured tendon pulls back into the leg, which is called retraction. Once the tendon retracts, it is never possible to get sufficient strength back without surgery, because the muscle no longer functions at the correct biomechanical length and is now stretched out. There are patients for whom surgery cannot be performed, in particular, due to existing medical conditions that may add to potential for complications following surgery. For these patients, a specially designed boot that positions the foot correctly and takes the pressure and tension off the muscle and tendon is used. Most importantly, a cast is never used because it causes permanent shrinkage (atrophy) of the calf muscle. The special boot permits pressure on the foot with walking. The boot also has a hinge to permit movement of the ankle. Many studies of Achilles tendon ruptures have shown that this movement of the foot in the boot while walking is ideal for tendon healing. If surgery is not recommended, it is essential to obtain special tests to check that the ends of the tendon are lying next to each other so that healing can occur. The best test to do this is an ultrasound and not an MRI.