An Achilles tendon rupture is a complete or partial tear that occurs when the tendon is stretched beyond its capacity. Forceful jumping or pivoting, or sudden accelerations of running, can overstretch the tendon and cause a tear. An injury to the tendon can also result from falling or tripping.
Achilles tendon ruptures are most often seen in "weekend warriors" – typically, middle-aged people participating in sports in their spare time. Less commonly, illness or medications, such as steroids or certain antibiotics, may weaken the tendon and contribute to ruptures.
Signs and Symptoms
A person with a ruptured Achilles tendon may experience one or more of the following:
- Sudden pain (which feels like a kick or a stab) in the back of the ankle or calf – often subsiding into a dull ache
- A popping or snapping sensation
- Swelling on the back of the leg between the heel and the calf
- Difficulty walking (especially upstairs or uphill) and difficulty rising up on the toes
Diagnosis of an Achilles tendon rupture is usually straight forward. Often a defect in the tendon is palpable and is highly suggestive of a tear. The ankle is usually swollen and bruised. If the tendon is ruptured, the patient will have less strength in pushing down (as on a gas pedal) and will have difficulty rising on the toes. Occasionally an MRI scan is needed to confirm the diagnosis.
Treatment options for an Achilles tendon rupture include surgical and non-surgical approaches. The decision of whether to proceed with surgery or non-surgical treatment is based on the severity of the rupture and the patient’s health status and activity level.
Non-surgical treatment, which is generally associated with a higher rate of re-rupture, is selected for minor ruptures, less active patients, and those with medical conditions that prevent them from undergoing surgery. Non-surgical treatment involves use of a cast, walking boot, or brace to restrict motion and allow the torn tendon to heal.
Surgery offers important potential benefits. Besides decreasing the likelihood of re-rupturing the Achilles tendon, surgery often increases the patient’s push-off strength and improves muscle function and movement of the ankle. Various surgical techniques are available to repair the rupture. The surgeon will select the procedure best suited to the patient.
Following surgery, the foot and ankle are initially immobilized in a cast or walking boot. The patient is typically not allowed to walk on the affected leg until 3 to 4 weeks after surgery and is not full weight bearing for an additional 3 to 4 weeks. Full recovery can take 4 to 6 months.