The Achilles tendon is the large cord like structure on the back of the leg just above the heel. It is the largest tendon in the body and has a tremendous amount of force transmitted through it during walking, running and jumping activities. The Achilles tendon is prone to injury, including rupture during periods of increased stress and activity. Common activities causing injury include running, basketball, baseball, football, soccer, volleyball and tennis. These activities require jumping and pushing forces that are possible due to the strength of the calf musculature and the ability of the Achilles tendon to endure this stress. Men from the ages of 30-50 are the most commonly injured during weekend athletic activities.
The Achilles tendon is the extension from the two large muscles in the calf region, the gastrocnemius and the soleus. These two muscles combine to form the Achilles tendon. The tendon forms in the lower one third of the leg and extends to the back of the heel bone (calcaneus). When the muscles of the calf contract this produces tension on the Achilles tendon pulling on the back of heel causing the heel to rise and the foot to point downward. It is during this motion that high-tension force is transmitted through the Achilles tendon during pushing and jumping activity. This high tension force can cause the Achilles tendon to tear or rupture. This happens in 3 common locations. The most common location for a tendon tear is within the tendon substance just above the heel. The second and third most common locations are where the Achilles tendon attaches into the heel bone and higher in the leg, where the tendon begins.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
Patients often describe a feeling of being kicked or hit with a baseball bat in the back of the heel during athletic activity. They are unable to continue the activity and have an extreme loss of strength with the inability to effectively walk. On physical examination there is often a defect that can be felt in the tendon just above the heel. A diagnosis of an Achilles tendon rupture is commonly made on physical exam. A MRI may be ordered to confirm the suspicion of a tear or to determine the extent of the tear.
Early treatment is imperative for the best long-term outcome. Surgical repair is the most common treatment producing the greatest return to function and activity level. The goal of surgery is to realign the two ends of the ruptured tendon to allow healing. There are multiple techniques to accomplish this goal that will vary from surgeon to surgeon. Recovery from this injury is usually very successful with return to full function in approximately 6 months. Post operatively casting is required with the use of crutches or other means to remain non-weightbearing for 4-8 weeks. This is followed by a course of physical therapy. Partial rupture may or may not require surgical intervention depending on the extent of injury but cast immobilization is a common requirement.