Achilles tendon rupture
Torn Achilles tendon
The Achilles tendon is the tendon located at the back of the foot and ankle. It connects the calf muscle to the heel bone. An Achilles tendon rupture is a tear in the Achilles tendon, which has serious consequences for the ankle and foot.
When we walk, run, climb stairs or jump, the Achilles tendon is subjected to great forces, so it is not surprising that it is the strongest tendon in the body.
Description of the condition
The calf muscles (triceps surae) ensure, via the Achilles tendon, that we can move our foot downwards. This is essential to be able to walk properly.
When the Achilles tendon tears, we call this an Achilles tendon rupture. The tendon can rupture partially or completely. An Achilles tendon rupture can occur in healthy tendon tissue or when the tendon is weakened. Weakened tendons are more common later in life.
Cause and origin
If the Achilles tendon tears, it is usually during sports or other strenuous activity. However, the Achilles tendon can also tear while performing relatively light activities. Usually, the condition of the tendon was already poor. This is called degeneration of the tendon tissue.
Most Achilles tendon ruptures occur in athletes between the ages of 30 and 40. The ratio of men to women with an Achilles tendon rupture is 10:1.
The risk of Achilles tendon rupture is, for example, further determined by:
- Use of certain medications (corticosteroids, some antibiotics).
- Presence of a systemic disease (rheumatism, gout, lupus)
- Making unexpected movements.
- Lack of physical fitness.
Signs & symptoms
When the Achilles tendon tears completely, moving the foot downwards (plantar flexion) is no longer possible. However, this will still be possible in case of a partial tear, but it will be very painful.
The patient's complaints include:
- Pain in the Achilles tendon region.
- Heat, redness and swelling around the Achilles tendon.
- Loss of strength in the calf muscle.
- Normal weight-bearing of the leg is no longer possible.
- There may be a perceptible and/or visible gap in the tendon.
If a complete tendon tear is suspected, a doctor or physiotherapist can determine this by means of a pinch test (the Thompson test). When the calf is squeezed, the foot should move. If this is not the case, the Achilles tendon is probably torn completely. In addition, a gap in the tendon can often be felt and/or seen. This will create a dimple or a small dent in the Achilles tendon.
If the Achilles tendon is partially torn, the foot still moves during the squeeze test. An ultrasound can then provide more clarity on the severity of the injury.
The severity of the Achilles tendon rupture in combination with other factors such as age, occupation and activity level will determine further treatment.
A completely torn Achilles tendon can be treated in two ways: non-surgical (conservative) or surgical. In conservative treatment, the lower leg is put in a cast for 6-8 weeks with the forefoot pointing downwards (equinus position). In this position, the tendon extremities are adjacent to each other to grow back together. Gradually, this equinus position is reduced until the foot is flat again.
In surgical treatment, the surgeon stitches the ends of the torn tendon back together again. After this operation, the tendon needs time to recover. Therefore, even after surgery, a plaster cast will be worn for 6-8 weeks with the foot in the equinus position.
No operation is without risk. There is a risk of thrombosis, subsequent bleeding or wound infection. In a few cases, the Achilles tendon can tear again. Fortunately, these complications are rare.
In the weeks that the leg is in the plaster cast, it is important to elevate it regularly to avoid swelling of the ankle and foot. You will walk with crutches to relieve the leg.
After the plaster cast has been removed, the ankle will feel stiff and it will be more difficult to lift the foot (dorsiflexion). The ankle or Achilles tendon region may still be a little swollen. The calf muscle will have decreased in size, strength and endurance, and the Achilles tendon itself will still be weak as well. It is therefore important to start exercising as soon as possible in order to regain strength again. This can be done under the supervision of a physiotherapist.
The total recovery time for an Achilles tendon rupture is about 3-6 months, depending on the demands that the tendon is subjected to. A top athlete will generally need to rehabilitate longer than someone who only needs to be able to walk.
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Verhaar, J.A.N. & Linden, A.J. van der (2005). Orthopedie. Houten: Bohn Stafleu van Loghum.