The Achilles tendon connects your calf muscles to your heel bone. Together, they help you push your heel off the ground and go up on your toes. You use these muscles and your Achilles tendon when you walk, run, and jump.
If your Achilles tendon stretches too far, it can tear or rupture. If this happens, you may:
Hear a snapping, cracking, or popping sound and feel a sharp pain in the back of your leg or ankle
Have trouble moving your foot to walk or go up stairs
Have difficulty standing on your toes
Have bruising or swelling in your leg or foot
About your injury
Most likely your injury occurred when you:
Suddenly pushed your foot off the ground, to go from walking to running, or to running uphill for example
Tripped and fell, or had another accident
Played a sport like tennis or basketball, with a lot of stopping and starting
Most injuries can be diagnosed during a physical exam. You may need an MRI scan to see what type of Achilles tendon tear you have. An MRI is a type of imaging test.
A partial tear means at least some of the tendon is still OK.
A full tear means your tendon is torn completely and the two sides are not attached to each other.
What to expect
If you have a complete tear, you may need surgery to repair your tendon. Your doctor will discuss the pros and cons of surgery with you. Before surgery, you will wear a special boot that keeps you from moving your lower leg and foot.
For a partial tear:
You may need surgery.
Instead of surgery, you may need to wear a cast, leg brace, splint, or boot for about 6 weeks. During this time, your tendon grows back together.
If you have a cast, it will cover your foot and go to your knee. Your toes will be pointing downward. The cast will be changed every 2 to 3 weeks to help stretch your tendon.
If you have a leg brace, splint, or boot, it will keep you from moving your foot. This will prevent further injury. You can walk once your doctor says it is OK to.
To relieve swelling:
Put an ice pack on the area right after you injure it.
Use pillows to raise your leg above the level of your heart when you sleep.
Keep your foot elevated when you are sitting.
You can take ibuprofen (such as Advil or Motrin), naproxen (such as Aleve or Naprosyn), or acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) for pain.
Do not give aspirin to children.
If you have heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney disease, or have had stomach ulcers or bleeding, talk with your doctor before using these medicines.
Do not take more than the amount recommended on the bottle.
Rehab and activity
At some point as you recover, your doctor will ask you to begin moving your heel. This may be as soon as 2 to 3 weeks or as long 6 weeks after your injury.
With the help of physical therapy, most people can return to normal activity in 4 to 6 months. In physical therapy, you will learn exercises to make your calf muscles stronger and your Achilles tendon more flexible.
When you stretch your calf muscles, do so slowly. Also, do not bounce or use too much force when you use your leg.
After you heal, you are at greater risk for injuring your Achilles tendon again. You will need to:
Stay in good shape and stretch before any exercise
Avoid high-heeled shoes
Ask your doctor if it is OK for you to play tennis, racquetball, basketball, and other sports where you stop and start
Do proper amount of warm up and stretching ahead of time
When to call the doctor
Call your doctor if you have any of these symptoms:
Swelling or pain in your leg, ankle, or foot becomes worse
Your leg or foot turns purple
Also call your doctor if you have questions or concerns that cannot wait until your next visit.
Sokolove PE, Barnes DK. Extensor and Flexor Tendon Injuries in the Hand, Wrist, and Foot. In: Roberts JR, Hedges JR, eds. Clinical Procedures in Emergency Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2013:chap 48.
C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Assistant Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.