Achilles Tendon Rupture Healing Process

Overview

Achilles Tendonitis

The Achilles tendon is found in the back of the leg above the heel, and is the largest tendon in the body. It connects the calf muscles to the heel bone and is used when walking, running and jumping. A rupture of the tendon is a tearing and separation of the tendon fibers. When a rupture of the tendon occurs, the tendon can no longer perform its normal function. A common issue related to a tear is the inability to point your toe.

Causes

The Achilles tendon is a strong bands of fibrous connective tissue that attaches the calf muscle to the heel bone. When the muscle contracts, the tendon transmits the power of this contraction to the heel bone, producing movement. The Achilles tendon ruptures because the load applied to it is greater than the tendon's ability to withstand that load. This usually occurs as a result of a sudden, quick movement where there is a forceful stretch of the tendon or a contraction of the muscles eg: jumping, sprinting, or pushing off to serve in tennis. This occurs most often in sports that require a lot of stopping and starting (acceleration-deceleration sports) such as tennis, basketball, netball and squash. The Achilles tendon is on average 15cm in length. Most ruptures occur 2-6cm above where the tendon inserts into the heel bone. This is the narrowest portion of the Achilles tendon and is also the area with the poorest blood supply. achilles tendon rupture is most common when the muscles and tendon have not been adequately stretched and warmed up prior to exercise, or when the muscles are fatigued. the Achilles tendon has a poor blood supply, which makes it susceptible to injury and slow to heal after injury. During exercise the amount of blood able to travel to the tendon is decreased, further increasing the risk of rupture. Most experts agree that there are no warning signs of an impending rupture. However, frequent episodes of Achilles tendonitis (tendon inflammation) can weaken the tendon and make it more susceptible to rupture.

Symptoms

Patients who suffer an acute rupture of the Achilles tendon often report hearing a ?pop?or ?snap.? Patients usually have severe pain the back of the lower leg near the heel. This may or may not be accompanied by swelling. Additionally, because the function of the Achilles tendon is to enable plantarflexion (bending the foot downward), patients often have difficulty walking or standing up on their toes. With a complete rupture of the tendon, the foot will not move. In cases where the diagnosis is equivocal, your physician may order an MRI of the leg to diagnose a rupture of the Achilles tendon.

Diagnosis

In diagnosing an Achilles tendon rupture, the foot and ankle surgeon will ask questions about how and when the injury occurred and whether the patient has previously injured the tendon or experienced similar symptoms. The surgeon will examine the foot and ankle, feeling for a defect in the tendon that suggests a tear. Range of motion and muscle strength will be evaluated and compared to the uninjured foot and ankle. If the Achilles 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. The diagnosis of an Achilles tendon rupture is typically straightforward and can be made through this type of examination. In some cases, however, the surgeon may order an MRI or other advanced imaging tests.

Non Surgical Treatment

Non-operative treatment consists of placing the foot in a downward position [equinus] and providing relative immobilization of the foot in this position until the Achilles has healed. This typically involves some type of stable bracing or relative immobilization for 6 weeks, often with limited or no weight bearing. The patient can then be transitioned to a boot with a heel lift and then gradually increase their activity level within the boot. It is very important that the status of the Achilles is monitored throughout non-operative treatment. This can be done by examination or via ultrasound. If there is evidence of gapping or non-healing, surgery may need to be considered. Formal protocols have been developed to help optimize non-operative treatments and excellent results have been reported with these protocols. The focus of these treatments is to ensure that the Achilles rupture is in continuity and is healing in a satisfactory manner. The primary advantage of non-operative treatment is that without an incision in this area, there are no problems with wound healing or infection. Wound infection following Achilles tendon surgery can be a devastating complication and therefore, for many patients, non-operative treatment should be contemplated. The main disadvantage of non-operative treatment is that the recovery is probably slower. On average, the main checkpoints of recovery occur 3-4 weeks quicker with operative treatment than with non-operative treatment. In addition, the re-rupture rate appears to be higher with some non-operative treatments. Re-rupture typically occurs 8-18 months after the original injury.

Achilles Tendinitis

Surgical Treatment

The patient is positioned prone after administration of either general or regional anesthesia. A longitudinal incision is made on either the medial or lateral aspect of the tendon. If a lateral incision is chosen care must be taken to identify and protect the sural nerve. Length of the incision averages 3 to 10 cm. Once the paratenon is incised longitudinally, the tendon ends are easily identifies. These are then re-approximated with either a Bunnell or Kessler or Krackow type suture technique with nonabsorbable suture. Next, the epitenon is repaired with a cross stitch technique. The paratenon should be repaired if it will be useful to prevent adhesions. Finally, a meticulous skin closure will limit wound complications. An alternative method is to perform a percutaneous technique, with a small incision (ranging from 2-4 cm). A few salient points include: the incision should be extended as needed, no self-retaining retractors should be used, and meticulous paratenon and wound closure is essential. Postoperatively the patient is immobilized in an equinous splint (usually 10?-15?) for 2 weeks. Immobilization may be extended if there is any concern about wound healing. At the 2-week follow-up, full weight bearing is permitted using a solid removable boot. At 6 weeks, aggressive physical therapy is prescribed and the patient uses the boot only for outdoor activity. At 12 weeks postoperatively, no further orthosis is recommended.

Prevention

Achilles tendon rupture can be prevented by avoiding chronic injury to the Achilles tendon (i.e. tendonitis), as well as being careful to warm up and stretch properly before physical activity. Additionally, be sure to use properly fitting equipment (e.g. running shoes) and correct training techniques to avoid this problem!

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