Achilles Tendon Rupture (cont.)
Steven S. Bhimji, MD, MSc, PhD
William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.
In this Article
Blood supply of Achilles tendon
The Achilles tendon receives its blood supply from only one blood vessel (the posterior tibial artery). This blood vessel has many small branches, which supply the entire tendon. However, the blood vessels just above the heel do become narrow with age, and this increases the risk of rupture. The Achilles tendon in young people has adequate blood supply, leading to a strong and flexible tendon, which is less prone to rupture. With advanced age, the Achilles tendon is easily irritated and inflamed and thus prone to rupture.
What is an Achilles tendon rupture?
Rupture of the Achilles tendon is a common injury in healthy, young, active individuals. The rupture is typically spontaneous and most commonly observed in individuals in between 24-45 years of age. The majority have had no prior history of pain or previous injury to the heel. In the majority of cases, rupture of the Achilles tendon occurs just a few centimeters above the heel bone. Common causes of Achilles tendinitis or rupture include advanced age, poor conditioning, and overexertion during exercise. In most cases, the individual rapidly performs activity like running or standing on the toes, which generates intense force on the tendon, leading to rupture. Achilles tendon rupture is often described as an abrupt break with instantaneous pain that is felt in the foot or heel area. The pain may radiate along the back of the leg and is often intense.
Generally, walking may be difficult and the foot may drag. Most individuals claim that they felt like they were kicked in that area or even shot at. These symptoms lead to a suspicion of rupture of the Achilles tendon.
Sometimes the tendon does not fully rupture but only a partial tear develops. The partial tear can also present with pain, and if not recognized, can rapidly develop into a full-blown rupture. In the majority of cases, the Achilles tendon rupture occurs just above the heel, but it may occur anywhere along the length of the tendon. (See picture 2.)
It is important to know that pain at the back of the heel is not always due to Achilles tendon rupture. It may be due to bursitis (fluid accumulation in the heel due to repeated irritation) and tendonitis (pain along the Achilles tendon due to constant friction and irritation). The above disorders tend to improve with use of pain medications and rest, whereas Achilles tendon rupture requires surgery and/or a cast.
The exact number of people who develop Achilles tendon injury is not known, because many people with mild tendonitis or partial tear do not seek medical help. It is believed to be more common in men but with the recent participation of women in athletics, the incidence of Achilles tendon injury is also increasing in this population. Overall, injury to the Achilles tendon is by far most common in the athlete/active individual.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 1/30/2015
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