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Achilles Tendon Injuries (Tear, Rupture) Causes, Symptoms, Treatments

What is the Achilles Tendon?

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 of the foot. This 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 surprisingly, a complete tear is more common than a partial tear.

Tears usually occur at the section of the tendon where blood flow is poorest – about 6cm above its attachment to the heel.

What are the Symptoms?

Primarily, an Achilles tendon tear will make activities like walking, running and jumping quite difficult. Other signs and symptoms of an Achilles tendon tear include:

  • A loud pop or snap
  • Sudden and severe pain in 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 2 inches above the heel)
  • Swelling and stiffness followed by weakness and bruising
  • Difficulty walking, especially during push off
  • Standing on tiptoe may be impossible

What Causes an Achilles Tear?

Anyone can tear their Achilles tendon if the tendon is subject to excessive force or overstretching. But some factors 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 if underused. As a result of this weakening, it becomes prone to tear or rupture with less force or stretching required. A tear of the Achilles often occurs in people with pre-existing Achilles tendinitis. Other factors such as certain medications (incl. antibiotics and steroids) and some illnesses (i.e. 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 excess strain on the tendon.

How Can Physiotherapy Help?

Treatment for Achilles tendon tear will depend on your age, how severe the injury is and your usual level of activity. Young people – especially athletes – opt to have surgery, while older people generally choose conservative treatments like 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 4-6 months. Functional rehabilitation would also be part of the program as this focuses on how you move and coordinate your body. The aim would be to help you return to your highest level of performance.

This information is not a replacement for proper medical advice. Always see a medical professional for advice on your individual condition.

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About 

Kaye graduated from the University of Qld in 1983 with a Bachelor of Physiotherapy. She worked in Canberra, Sydney, London, Lincoln and Redcliffe before starting her first practice in 1989. more about Kaye