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5 Achilles tendon rupture
Patient History and Physical Findings
Imaging and Diagnostic Studies
Pearls and Pitfalls
Postoperative Care
Red Flags and Controversies
5.1 Introduction
Achilles tendon ruptures are the most common tendon ruptures of the lower extremity. They can occur at
any age, but are most common in the third to fifth decade. There is a significant male preponderance. The
classic description is the "weekend warrior" athlete.
5.2 Anatomy
The Achilles tendon is the common tendon of the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles and provides their
attachment to the calcaneus. The soleus muscle arises from the posterior tibia while the gastrocnemius
arises from the posterior distal femur. This allows the the gastrocnemius to be effective with an extended
knee and the soleus to be more effective with a flexed knee.
The tendons from both muscles coalesce just distal to the musculotendinous junction to form the Achilles
tendon. The tendon has a relative avascular portion 2-6 centimeter above the insertion. The tendon also
rotates approximately 90 degrees during during its course, with the gastrocnemius fibers being more lateral.
The tendon inserts upon the posterior calcaneus primarily along the posterior tuberosity with slightly more
medial than lateral extension (Chao F&A 1997, Lohrer CORR 2008).
5.3 Pathogenesis
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A relatively hypovascular area exists approximately 2-6 cm above the insertion into the calcaneus. This
hypovascularity has been implicated in disorders of the tendon. Age-dependent changes in collagen
cross-linking result in increased stiffness and loss of viscoelasticity, which may predispose the tendon to
rupture. Mechanisms associated with ruptures include sudden forced dorsiflexion of the ankle (eccentric
contraction of the gastrocnemius and soleus), pushing off with the weight-bearing forefoot while extending
the knee, and laceration or direct blow to the contracted tendon.
5.4 Classification
Achilles tendon ruptures are partial or complete. Ruptures can also be divided into acute traumatic ruptures,
chronic ruptures, or chronic attritional ruptures. However, ruptures are often due to a combination of
age-related attrition and an acute traumatic incident.
5.5 Patient History and Physical Findings
The patient with Achilles tendon rupture presents with pain in the area of the Achilles tendon. The pain of an
acute rupture is often described as an intense burning sensation or sharp stabbing pain. Patients may hear
an audible pop after an eccentric muscle contraction or pushing off; they usually describe a feeling of being
kicked, hit, or shot in the heel. A small percentage of patients will have prodromal symptoms. In the
presence of a complete tear, patients will experience significant ankle plantar flexion weakness. However,
many patients continue to be able to actively plantarflex the ankle using accessory muscles. This may
confound some examiners and result in a missed diagnosis.
Physical findings include a visible soft-tissue depression in the posterior ankle on observation. The tendon
defect can often be palpated along the posterior leg and ankle. Patients may be unable to walk or walk only
with a limp secondary to weak or absent pushoff. Absence of active plantarflexion is often expected, but
many patients effectively recruit other muscles to plantarflex against manual testing. However, they are
rarely able to perform a single leg heel raise. With the patient in the prone position and the knees flexed, the
Thompson squeeze test is executed by squeezing the calf muscle and observing the presence or absence of
resultant ankle plantarflexion and comparing with the contralateral side. Another helpful test is to observe the
resting position of the ankle compared to the unaffected side with the patient prone and the knees flexed to
90 degrees.
5.6 Imaging and Diagnostic Studies
Radiographs are rarely diagnostic. They may be warranted in cases of extremely distal ruptures when
avulsion of part of the calcaneus needs to be ruled out. Ultrasound and MRI can accurately demonstrate
ruptures, but are rarely necessary with classic clinical findings. These studies may be helpful when the
diagnosis is unclear.
5.7 Treatment
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Treatment for acute Achilles tendon ruptures can be operative or non-operative and much controversy
exists. Historically, the pendulum swung towards operative treatment (especially of younger, healthier
patients) because of the much lower reported re-rupture rate (2% for surgical and 11-30% for non-surgical),
accepting the trade-off of potential wound complications. Recent investigations have reported much better
results with non-operative treatment, often using aggressive functional rehabilitation protocols.
The AAOS and AOFAS have issued a clinical practice guideline and evidence report regarding Achilles
tendon ruptures. It can be viewed at
5.7.1 Non-operative Treatment
Conservative treatment varies and classically involved casting in a long leg cast with knee flexed and ankle
in equinus (2-3 weeks), then short leg casting (8 weeks). Non-weight-bearing was typically recommended
initially (the first 6 weeks).
More recent approaches include functional bracing with immediate weight-bearing. These more aggressive
protocols describe immediate full weight-bearing in a functional brace or pre-fabricated boot. Patients are
started with with the ankle in up to 45 degrees of plantarflexion, which is gradually decreased to neutral over
6 to 12 weeks. They often perform active plantarflexion exercises with restricted dorsiflexion during that time
then graduate to more aggressive strengthening protocols.
5.7.2 Operative Treatment
Operative treatment has evolved to include open, limited open, and percutaneous techniques.
The classic involves a longitudinal incision approximately 1 cm medial to the tendon to open approach
avoid irritation by footwear. The incision should be carried straight through the skin and subcutaneous tissue
to the tendon sheath (paratenon) to minimize postoperative wound complications. Careful preservation of the
paratenon is important for later closure and gliding of the tendon. The ends of the tendon are gently debrided
and then re-approximated with a large nonabsorbable suture. This may vary from 2-, 4-, or 6-strand repairs
(4 being the most common), and Bunnell and Krackow techniques have been reported.
There is some controversy about the benefit of an epi-tenon stitch. Special attention should be directed to
the tension of the repair and it should be matched as close as possible to the contralateral side. The
plantaris is often available for local supplementation if the Achilles tissue is poor. More significant disruption,
and especially chronic tears, could require tendon transfer utilizing the flexor digitorum longus, flexor hallucis
longus, or peroneals.
have become more popular. Several devices (Integra Achillon, Teno-lig) have Percutaneous techniques
been promoted to minimize the risk of entrapment of the sural nerve that is the major complication
associated with percutaneous repairs. Typically, a small (1 cm) incision is made at the rupture site (either
transverse or longitudinal), allowing visualization of the rupture. The proximal tendon is grasped with a clamp
and then sutures are passed percutaneously through the tendon more proximally and pulled into the tendon
sheath and out the small incision. The process is repeated for the distal portion and then these suture are
tied together.
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The theoretical benefits include less disruption of the tendon sheath (and therefore less disruption of the
blood supply and better tendon gliding) and less risk of wound complications. The drawbacks can include
poor purchase of tendon ends and a small risk of sural nerve injury (more likely in percutaneous technique).
The incidence of sural nerve injury ranges from 0 to 10.5% in the literature(Rouvillian 2010, Jung FAI 2008,
Haji 2004, Lansdaal 2007 and others).
use hybrid elements of open and percutaneous techniques to minimize tissue Limited open techniques
disruption. The principles of stable fixation, appropriate tendon length, careful soft tissue handling, and
protection of nervous structures must be kept in mind with any approach.
Repair of neglected Achilles ruptures typically involves removing intervening scar tissue, lengthening the
proximal portion of the tendon, and supplementation with soft-tissue advancement and/or tendon transfer.
This is further described elsewhere.
5.8 Pearls and Pitfalls
Restore the tension in the gastrosoleus musculotendinous unit following surgical repair. Both legs
may be included in the surgical field so that the tension in the uninjured side can be compared with
the one that is being repaired to avoid problems with a tendon that is too long or too short.
In an open repair, minimize retraction of the skin edges to avoid wound edge necrosis.
For an acute repair, tourniquet control is rarely necessary.
Always be aware of the location of the sural nerve, just lateral to the Achilles tendon.
5.9 Postoperative Care
After surgery, patients are commonly splinted for 2 weeks in equinus and remain non-weight-bearing. At 2
weeks, treatment can differ substantially among surgeons. Some may cast for an additional 4-6 weeks and
then transition to shoe-wear with a heel lift. Others may progress from the splint to an Achilles-type cam boot
that can hold the ankle in varying degrees of equinus. Patients are allowed to weight-bear and gradually
adjust the cam boot to a neutral position by 6-8 weeks postop. Patient are then transitioned to shoes with a
heel lift and physically therapy is intensified. Athletes may require 6 months to return to adequate playing
strength, and studies suggest full strength may take 1-2 years to achieve and may never equal the
pre-rupture strength.
5.10 Outcome
Outcomes are typically quite good, although some patients may never regain full strength. As mentioned
earlier, surgical re-ruptures rates are around 2%, while non-operative treatment has historical re-ruptures
rates up to 35%. Current functional non-operative protocols appear to have a much lower re-rupture rate.
5.11 Complications
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5.11.1 Operative Treatment
Rerupture (~2%)
Skin complications (~5%)
Deep infection(~1%)
Thickened tendon in repair area
h5 Non-operative Treatment
Rerupture (10-30%)
Decreased strength
5.12 Red Flags and Controversies
Controversy exists regarding operative versus non-operative treatment. Many advocate non-operative
treatment due to similar strength, power, range of motion, and functional level results obtained with
conservative and operative treatments. Others have recommended surgical repair in athletic patients
due to a lower re-rupture rate (2-3% for surgical treatment versus 10-30% for non-surgical treatment).
Carden et al (1987) reported non-operative results comparable to operative results when ruptures
were casted in the first 48 hours.
Studies suggest wound complications and re-rupture are higher with open techniques but sural nerve
entrapment is a problem with percutaneous techniques. See . Percutaneous Achilles Repair
As mentioned, controversy exists, but it is generally thought that surgical treatment results in good return of
strength, endurance, and power with a low re-rupture rate.
5.13 References
Aktas S, Kocaoglu B. Open versus minimal invasive repair with Achillon device. Foot Ankle Int. 2009
May;30(5):391-7. PubMed PMID: 19439137.
Carden DG, Noble J, Chalmers J, Lunn P, Ellis J, 1987. "Rupture of the calcaneal tendon. The early and late
management." J Bone Joint Surg Br 69 (3): 416-20. PubMed PMID: 3294839.
Chiodo CP, Glazebrook M, Bluman EM, Cohen BE, Femino JE, Giza E. The diagnosis and treatment of
acute Achilles tendon rupture. Guideline and evidence report. Rosemont, IL: American Academy of
Orthopaedic Surgeons; 2009.
Haji A, Sahai A, Symes A, Vyas JK. Percutaneous versus open tendo achilles repair. Foot Ankle Int. 2004
Apr;25(4):215-8. PubMed PMID: 15132928.
Jung H, Lee K, Cho S, Yoon T. Outcome of Achilles Tendon Ruptures Treated by a Limited Open
Technique. Foot & Ankle International, 2008 Aug; 29(8):803-7.
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Lansdaal JR, Goslings JC, Reichart M, Govaert GA, van Scherpenzeel KM, Haverlag R, Ponsen KJ. The
results of 163 Achilles tendon ruptures treated by a minimally invasive surgical technique and functional
aftertreatment. Injury. 2007 Jul;38(7):839-44. Epub 2007 Feb 20. PubMed PMID: 17316642.
Metz R, Verleisdonk EJ, van der Heijden GJ, Clevers GJ, Hammacher ER, Verhofstad MH, van der Werken
C. Acute Achilles tendon rupture: minimally invasive surgery versus nonoperative treatment with immediate
full weightbearing--a randomized controlled trial. Am J Sports Med. 2008 Sep;36(9):1688-94. Epub 2008 Jul
21. PubMed PMID: 18645042.
Molloy A, Wood EV. Complications of the treatment of Achilles tendon ruptures. Foot Ankle Clin. 2009
Dec;14(4):745-59. Review. PubMed PMID: 19857846.
Neumayer F, Mouhsine E, Arlettaz Y, Gremion G, Wettstein M, Crevoisier X. A new conservative-dynamic
treatment for the acute ruptured Achilles tendon. Arch Orthop Trauma Surg. 2010 Mar;130(3):363-8. Epub
2009 Apr 2. PubMed PMID:
Rouvillain JL, Navarre T, Labrada-Blanco O, Garron E, Daoud W. Percutaneous suture of acute Achilles
tendon rupture. A study of 60 cases. Acta Orthop Belg. 2010 Apr;76(2):237-42. PubMed PMID: 20503951.
Suchak AA, Bostick GP, Beaupr LA, Durand DC, Jomha NM. The influence of early weight-bearing
compared with non-weight-bearing after surgical repair of the Achilles tendon. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 2008
Sep;90(9):1876-83. PubMed PMID: 18762647.
Willits K, Amendola A, Bryant D, et al. Operative versus Nonoperative Treatment of Acute Achilles Tendon
Ruptures: A Multicenter Randomized Trial Using Accelerated Functional Rehabilitation. J. Bone Joint Surg.
Am., Dec 2010; 92: 2767 - 2775.