What is it?
The Achilles tendon is a band of fibrous tissue located at the back of the ankle. Its main role is to connect the calf muscles to the heel bone. This tendon is the largest tendon in the body and when it tightens, as the calf muscles contract, it pulls the heel allowing you to stand on tiptoe or to point your foot.
Achilles tendon tears commonly occur in athletes, however, this injury can affect anyone and at any age. Surprisingly, a complete tear is actually more common than a partial tear.
These tears are commonly located at the part of the tendon where there is poor blood flow approximately 6cm above its attachment to the heel. Since there is poor blood supply, this part of the tendon is both vulnerable to injury and slow to heal.
What are the Symptoms?
Primarily, an Achilles tendon tear will cause difficulty in activities such as walking, running and jumping. Other signs and symptoms of an Achilles tendon tear include:
· A loud pop or snap is heard
· Sudden and severe pain at the back of the calf or ankle
· Feeling of having been kicked in the calf
· There is a gap between the tendon and the heel (about 6cm above the heel)
· Swelling and stiffness followed by weakness and bruising
· Difficulty walking, particularly during push off
· Standing on tiptoe may be impossible
What Causes It?
Anyone can tear their Achilles tendon if the tendon is subject to excessive force or overstretching, however there are some factors that can increase your risk of injury. The most common activities that cause this injury are running and jumping.
The Achilles tendon can thin and weaken both as we age, and also if it is not used. As a result of this weakening, it becomes prone to injury like tear or rupture with less force or stretching required before an injury occurs. A tear of the Achilles is often observed in people with pre-existing Achilles tendinitis. Other factors such as certain medications including antibiotics and steroids and some illnesses like diabetes and arthritis can also result in weakness of the tendon, increasing injury risk. Being obese is also a risk factor as excess weight puts additional strain on the tendon.
How Can Physiotherapy Help?
The good news is Physiotherapy is a highly effective way to manage an Achilles injury. Overall management approach will depend on a number of factors including the patient’s age, how severe the injury is and the patient’s activity level. For young people especially athletes, they opt to have surgery followed by physiotherapy based rehabilitation while older, less active people can choose full conservative management including physiotherapy.
Physiotherapy treatment for an Achilles tendon tear will involve exercises to strengthen the calf muscles and the Achilles tendon and exercises for stability. Many people are able to return to their normal activities within 4 to 6 months. Functional rehabilitation is also part of the program as it focuses on how you coordinate your body and how to move it. The aim of functional rehabilitation is to help you return to your highest level of performance.
At Northside Sports Medicine our Physiotherapists are experienced in managing both conservative and post-operative Achilles injuries.