Ruptured Achilles Tendon

Causes, Treatment, and Prevention of a Ruptured Achilles Tendon

The Achilles tendon is the largest and most vulnerable tendon in the body. It joins the calf muscles of the lower leg (the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles) to the heel bone of the foot. The gastrocnemius muscle crosses the knee and the ankle joints. Stress and tension in the Achilles tendon can lead to injury. Tendons are strong, but not very flexible, so they can only stretch so far before they get inflamed or tear.

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Causes of Achilles Tendon Rupture

The exact cause of Achilles tendon rupture is hard to say. It can happen suddenly, without warning, or following an Achilles tendonitis. It seems that weak calf muscles may contribute to problems.

An Achilles tendon rupture is more likely when the force on the tendon is greater than the strength of the tendon. This can occur when the foot is dorsiflexed while the lower leg moves forward and the calf muscles contract. Most ruptures happen during a forceful stretch of the tendon while the calf muscles contract.

This injury often happens to “weekend warriors,” according to the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons, middle-aged people who get their athletic activity in only on their days off.

Steroids and some antibiotics are also linked to Achilles tendon rupture. Many doctors avoid cortisone shots in or near the Achilles tendon due to this association.

Signs and Symptoms of Achilles Tendon Rupture

A classic sign of an Achilles tendon rupture is the feeling of being hit in the calf area. Patients often report feeling a “pop”. There may be sudden pain in the area, but the person cannot lift up onto his toes while weight bearing, and walking uphill or upstairs is difficult. Swelling may appear on the back of the leg in the Achilles area.

You should seek immediate medical attention after the injury. The doctor will perform a physical examination and discuss what happened. That is usually enough to make the diagnosis, although sometimes an MRI may be ordered.

Achilles Tendon Rupture Treatment

A completely ruptured Achilles tendon can generally heal with or without surgery, often with a cast or walking boot. Surgical treatment has long been associated with a lower rate of re-rupture compared with non-surgical treatment, but recent studies have found the difference in re-rupture outcomes to be small. Surgical treatment is also associated with a higher risk of complications. Regardless of treatment type, physical therapy to regain flexibility and then strength is an important part of regaining function after the injury heals.

2 Sources
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  1. American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons. Achilles tendon rupture.

  2. Ochen Y, Beks RB, van Heijl M, et al. Operative treatment versus nonoperative treatment of Achilles tendon ruptures: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ. 2019;364:k5120. doi:10.1136/bmj.k5120. doi:10.1136/bmj.k5120

By Elizabeth Quinn
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.