I encourage all my patients to stay active with regular exercise. Whether you prefer strength training at the gym, outdoor fitness activities or team sports, regular exercise is one surefire way to boost your health and promote longevity. Just because you aren’t a professional athlete, however, doesn’t mean you can’t be sidelined unexpectedly with an injury.
One of the most common problems I see in my practice is a ruptured Achilles tendon. Though this may be a painful injury, full rehabilitation is possible when treated early and given the proper care.
How do you know it’s the Achilles?
The Achilles tendon is a large, fibrous cord that connects muscles from the back of your leg to your heel bone. A rupture can be either partial or complete and is caused by overstretching the tendon. You will probably feel a pop or a snap followed by sharp pain.
There are several signs of a ruptured Achilles. You will have pain and swelling near the heel and be unable to walk normally. You will not be able to bend the foot downward if you have a complete rupture, but some movement is possible with a partial rupture.
With a complete rupture, you will not be able to rise up on your toes. To determine whether a rupture has occurred, you should see an orthopedic doctor as soon as possible. He or she will do a simple Thompson test, which involves squeezing the calf to check for a reaction in the foot.
Is natural healing a possibility?
Surgery is a common treatment for a ruptured Achilles tendon. It involves reconnecting the ruptured tissue and requires 6 to 8 weeks of healing with a walking boot, cast, brace or splint. For many patients, surgery is not necessarily the best option.
It is possible to cause the tendons to reattach themselves by wearing a special cast or boot. The healing process may take longer than the surgical option, but natural healing is a great choice for people with chronic illnesses who cannot tolerate the risk of infection during surgery or the exposure to anesthesia.
Both options will be followed by 4 to 6 months of physical therapy, which is crucial to strengthen the tendon and avoid re-injury. Other treatments that can aid in the rehabilitation process are ultrasound heat therapy and message, which improve blood circulation, and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), which can relieve pain for some people. It is also imperative to quit smoking during rehabilitation, as it can slow down repair by decreasing blood supply to the injured tissue.
How can I prevent a rupture?
If you are active, it is important to prevent an injury to the Achilles tendon or avoid re-rupture if this has already occurred. Switching your activities between high and low impact sports is a good way to prevent overuse. For example, people who run 5 days a week should instead run 3 days and spend the other two swimming or biking, which place less stress on the Achilles.
No matter what activities you do, warming up and stretching beforehand will reduce your risk of injury. Stretch the calves and Achilles without bouncing until you feel a pull, but no pain. You can also do specific exercise to strengthen the calves and Achilles, such as toe raises. Aim for 2 or 3 sets, 3 times per week.
You’ll also want to pay attention to your athletic shoes. They should fit well, feel comfortable and have ample heel cushioning. Replace them regularly so you’ll always have maximum support.
As you can see, it is easy to be active while giving your body the care necessary to avoid a ruptured Achilles tendon. Remember to see a doctor if you are in pain and suspect an injury. Finally, the simplest advice is to pay attention to what your body tells you. If you feel pain during physical activity or sports, stop and rest. After all, staying on the sidelines temporarily is much better than not being able to play the game at all.