NFL Injury Series- Achilles Tear

Analyzing the Achilles’ tear, causes, rehab, and return to play rates in the NFL.

Training camp is in full swing and the Buffalo Bills continue to stay healthy despite significant injuries elsewhere in the league. One injury that the Bills have avoided for some time is the Achilles tear which is the topic of today’s article on Banged Up Bills NFL Injury series.

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Credit: http://www.medi.de

The Achilles tendon is a thick tendon that connects the gastrocnemius and soleus muscle to the calcaneus which is the heel bone. The gastrocnemius muscle or calf muscle allows the foot to point down or plantar flex which is required for the leg to push off during walking and running. It also assists in flexing the lower leg at the knee joint along with the hamstrings. The gastrocnemius and soleus help drive the body forward in walking and running and are especially in maximum use during sprinting.

Like other tendons, the Achilles tendon can become injured which can develop into a tendonitis. This occurs when pain/inflammation affects the insertion point of the muscle and it becomes painful with activity. This can eventually lead to microtears occurring in the tissue during injury and the tendon heals improperly. Normal tendon and muscle striations are linear in nature allowing for maximum contraction of the muscle. In the event of tendonitis, the tissue heals improperly and instead of consistent striations, there is a disorganized mess of muscle fibers that does not allow the muscle to contract as efficiently which can lead to further pain and inflammation with continued overuse.

Risk factors seen in football players which could increase the incidence of an Achilles tendon rupture include: excessive body weight, heavy weightlifting, use of anabolic steroids, long term use of corticosteroids, immobilization of the ankle/foot, of the male sex, and muscle weakness/imbalance. While some of these risk factors are preventable, others are not and this is where doctors have to use best judgement when performing interventions for both short term and long term implications following injury.

With improper rest or not performing preventative exercises such as stretching or regular strengthening, an Achilles can eventually tear with either chronic overuse or suddenly. Unfortunately, most traumatic Achilles rupture warning signs can be asymptomatic and do not usually present with problems until after the major injury occurs. This means that because you have Achilles tendinitis, does not mean you will have rupture. However, because you do not have symptoms, does not mean you won’t have further injury.

In the event of a tear, most athletes are jumping, sprinting, or cutting with such great force that the tendon ruptured suddenly. The muscle is stretched past its limits suddenly or asked to do more than it is capable of after periods of inactivity. Even in conditioned athletes, this can still occur as the athlete is continuously pushing themselves to their limits. When rupture occurs, it is likened to a shotgun blast and loss of function and pain is immediate. This is an injury that even the strongest, most determined athletes cannot work through. The ability to push off the foot simply is not there. Here is an excellent clip of an Achilles tendon rupturing in real time.

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Credit: http://www.sportsinjuryclinic.com

In the event that there is a suspected Achilles tear, a Thompson test would be performed. This is where an athlete would lie on their stomach with their foot hanging off a table and the calf would be squeezed. If the foot moves, the Achilles is intact. If there is no movement, then this confirms the tear. Imaging may be done to assess severity but if the Thompson test is positive, then it is a tear. Tests such as this are typically accurate, similar to the anterior drawer test with ACL injuries.

Once the Achilles tear is confirmed, surgery is usually recommended immediately as tendon ruptures tend to retract back to the origin or attachment point of the muscle which means the longer surgery waits, the more difficult it will be to reattach the tendon. Rehab typically takes 6  months to a year to fully recover. Once the procedure is performed, the patient is placed in a boot that encourages the foot to point down to place slack on the tendon so that it can heal properly. If the foot were to be flat, that would place stress on the healing tendon with the foot in neutral and there would be a lesser chance of it healing properly.

Once the foot/ankle is immobilized with progressive weight bearing as instructed until 8 weeks to allow the tendon to fully heal back to the attachment point that is the bone. Light strengthening begins after 8 weeks with active stretching to the surgically repaired area occurring after 12 weeks. Progressive strengthening up to 6 months occurs with focus to avoid high forces on the tendon to reduce re-rupture. Similar to the ACL of the knee, full return to sports takes 9-12 months due to the demands of the structure.

Fortunately, re-rupture rates are exceptionally low in the repaired Achilles. While it is a long recovery, re-rupture rates following a repair are between 3.5%4.5% which indicate the overall long term success of the intervention. Non-surgical methods are available but are not recommended unless the person is a poor surgical candidate. While the re-rupture rates are fairly low, return to play rates are much poorer in comparison. Roughly 30% of athletes who sustain an Achilles tendon rupture and repair are never able to return to the NFL. Those that do typically suffer a decrease in performance up to 50% according to research. Those that do have a surgical repair have about a 6% chance to tear the contralateral or opposite Achilles.

Interestingly, the last confirmed Achilles tear that the Buffalo Bills had suffered dates all the way back to 2005 when LB Takeo Spikes tore his in the early in the season. There may have been more recent ones but pro-football-reference.com only goes back to 2009 with injury reports for the Bills and I was unable to find any Achilles tears after 2009. I pray that this is one streak that we don’t end for some time.

This is another nasty injury that occurs far too often in the NFL. Regrettably, it is a sad reality and there can only be so much done to prevent these injuries. So far, only two have been reported, CB Jason Verett of the LA Chargers and Patriots OL Isaiah Wynn. However, this will not be the last one by any stretch as it is still early in preseason and unfortunately many more injuries will occur.

This wraps up another article in the NFL injury series. As the preseason progresses, continue to watch for more Bills camp updates, injury articles, and any other breaking news coming out of One Bills Drive. Follow Banged Up Bills on Facebook, on Twitter @BangedUpBills, and on reddit at u/BangedUpBills. As always, thank you for reading and GO BILLS!!