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Achilles Tendon Rupture Conservative Rehab Protocol

Overview

The Achilles tendon connects the muscles in the back of your lower leg to your heel bone. It allows you to move your foot down (?step on the gas? motion). This movement is essential for walking, running, and jumping. A sudden strong contraction of the lower leg (such as when playing sports) can partially tear or rupture the Achilles tendon. This injury is more likely if there is prior injury or inflammation of that tendon from prior stress. You may feel a pop or snap, or like you have been kicked. An Achilles tendon tear will cause local swelling and pain and difficulty in walking. A complete Achilles rupture is usually treated with surgery to attach the torn ends of the tendon. This is followed by 6-8 weeks in a walking cast, boot, or splint. Nonsurgical treatment is an option, but it will take longer to heal and the risk of repeat rupture is greater. With either type of treatment, you will need a physical therapy program to strengthen your Achilles tendon. It will take 4-6 months to return to your former level of activity.


Causes
The tendon usually ruptures without any warning. It is most common in men between the ages of 40-50, who play sports intermittently, such as badminton and squash. There was probably some degeneration in the tendon before the rupture which may or may not have been causing symptoms.


Symptoms
Patients who suffer an acute rupture of the Achilles tendon often report hearing a ?pop?or ?snap.? Patients usually have severe pain the back of the lower leg near the heel. This may or may not be accompanied by swelling. Additionally, because the function of the Achilles tendon is to enable plantarflexion (bending the foot downward), patients often have difficulty walking or standing up on their toes. With a complete rupture of the tendon, the foot will not move. In cases where the diagnosis is equivocal, your physician may order an MRI of the leg to diagnose a rupture of the Achilles tendon.


Diagnosis
The diagnosis of an Achilles tendon rupture can be made easily by an orthopedic surgeon. The defect in the tendon is easy to see and to palpate. No x-ray, MRI or other tests are necessary.


Non Surgical Treatment
There are two treatment options available which are non-operative and operative. Non-operative treatment involves the use initially of a below-knee plaster with the foot held fully bent downwards. This usually stays in place for 2 weeks then is changed for a brace(this is a boot from the knee down to the toes with Velcro straps) which should be worn day and night. The brace will be regularly altered to allow the foot to come up to a more neutral position. The brace will be on for a further 6 weeks. After the 8 weeks you will be referred for physiotherapy to regain movement and calf strength but will probably need to wear the brace during the day for a further 4 weeks. Non-operative treatment avoids the risks of surgery but the risk of the tendon re-rupturing, which normally occurs within 3 months of discarding the brace, is 10%.


Surgical Treatment
Surgical correction of the ruptured tendon is almost always necessary. Surgery is performed in order to regain the maximum strength of the Achilles, as well as the normal pushing off strength of the foot. The strength of the muscle depends on the correct tension between the muscle and the tendon. The only way the correct tension on the tendon can set is by accurately repairing the tendon ends. When the tendon ruptures, the ends of the tendon separate and multiple little strands of the tendon are present like pieces of spaghetti. There are old fashioned techniques for repairing the tendon which require very long incisions (eight inches) on the back of the leg. These are complicated and associated with a high incidence of infection in the skin after surgery. This is an important consideration, since infection in the skin can lead to devastating problems with the skin and tendon. This problem of skin infection has, in the past, led surgeons away from surgical methods of treatment. Fortunately, now there is a new, unique method available for operating on and repairing the tendon. This new method requires only a tiny incision of one to two centimeters in length. This is far more accurate surgery. Recovery after this procedure is easier and the surgical complication rate is extremely low.


Prevention
Good flexibility of the calf muscles plays an essential role in the prevention of Achilles tendon injuries. It is also important to include balance and stability work as part of the training programme. This should include work for the deep-seated abdominal muscles and for the muscles that control the hip. This might at first appear odd, given the fact that the Achilles are a good distance from these areas, but developing strength and control in this area (core stability) can boost control at the knee and ankle joints. Training errors should be avoided. The volume, intensity and frequency of training should be monitored carefully, and gradually progressed, particularly when introducing new modes of training to the programme. Abrupt changes in training load are the primary cause of Achilles tendinopathy.

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