While it is possible to treat an Achilles tendon rupture without surgery, this is not ideal since the maximum strength of the muscle and tendon rarely returns. The reason is the ends of the tendon are ruptured in a very irregular manner, almost like the ends of a paint brush.
As soon as the tendon ruptures, the calf muscle (gastrocnemius muscle) continues to pull on the tendon and the end of the ruptured tendon pulls back into the leg, which is called retraction. Once the tendon retracts, it is never possible to get sufficient strength back without surgery, because the muscle no longer functions at the correct biomechanical length and is now stretched out.
There are patients for whom surgery cannot be performed, in particular, due to existing medical conditions that may add to potential for complications following surgery. For these patients, a specially designed boot that positions the foot correctly and takes the pressure and tension off the muscle and tendon is used. Most importantly, a cast is never used because it causes permanent shrinkage (atrophy) of the calf muscle. The special boot permits pressure on the foot with walking.
The boot also has a hinge to permit movement of the ankle. Many studies of Achilles tendon ruptures have shown that this movement of the foot in the boot while walking is ideal for tendon healing.
If surgery is not recommended, it is essential to obtain special tests to check that the ends of the tendon are lying next to each other so that healing can occur. The best test to do this is an ultrasound and not an MRI.
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.