Surgery For Achilles Tendon May Not Improve Recovery
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The Fitness Fixer

Surgery For Achilles Tendon May Not Improve Recovery

Readers have been asking about fixing Achilles tendon tears. They ask if tears can heal without surgery. Tears, even complete tears, can heal with the right rehab therapy even without surgery. A recent study of 92 patients made news when it concluded, "Surgical and nonsurgical treatment were equally effective for patients with acute rupture of the Achilles tendon."

Dr. Katarina Nilsson Helander, MD, of Kungsbacka Hospital in Sweden reported at the March 2010 American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons meeting, that outcomes and rates of re-rupture did not differ significantly through 12 months between patients getting surgery and those with physical rehab alone. Within 72 hours of injury, the 97 patients were randomized to surgery (48 patients) or no surgery (49 patients), followed by two weeks in a firm cast, then six weeks in an adjustable brace that allowed some movement of the foot. Both groups reported increased physical activity over time. All underwent identical rehabilitation programs. Complications in the surgical group included one contracture of the tendon, two wound infections (one deep and one superficial), and two nerve disturbances. Thirteen patients had concerns about the scar, 10 for cosmetic reasons and three for scar contracture and pain. Both groups were still below pre-injury levels at one year.

Primary source: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Nilsson Helander K, et al., "Acute Achilles tendon rupture: an RCT comparing surgical and nonsurgical treatments" AAOS 2010; Abstract 712.

There is currently no consensus whether surgery plus physical rehab, or physical rehab alone is the favorable approach. That means, if you go to a doctor with your Achilles tear, you may be told that surgery is the only way, even though you may get the same results without the surgery. Many people hope to have surgery and be done with their problem, not knowing they will need the same physical therapy either way. Complications such as incision-healing difficulties, infection, contractures, re-rupture of the tendon, atrophy, complications and illness from anesthesia, bleeding, clots, scar pain, nerve pain, can arise from surgery. Drugs required during and after surgery can create new illnesses and further drug prescriptions. Surgical and healing outcomes vary with the skill, luck, and patient load of the operating team that day.

It is not new information that surgery may not always be required. Several studies conclude that non-surgical treatment yields similar results:

  1. Fruensgaard S, Helmig P, Riis J, Stovring JO. Conservative treatment for acute rupture of the Achilles tendon. Int Orthop. 1992;16(1):33-5.
  2. McComis GP, Nawoczenski DA, DeHaven KE. Functional bracing for rupture of the Achilles tendon. Clinical results and analysis of ground-reaction forces and temporal data. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 1997;79(12):1799–808.
  3. van der Linden-van der Zwaag HM, Nelissen RG, Sintenie JB. Results of surgical versus non-surgical treatment of Achilles tendon rupture. Int Orthop. 2004;28(6):370–3.

Soccer player David Beckham underwent surgery last week after tearing his left Achilles' tendon playing for AC Milan against Chievo. The news reported that the surgeon, Dr. Sakari Orava, said that, "The operation went smoothly and nicely" but that Beckham would not be able to play in this year's World Cup, saying "No,....healing (from the surgery) takes a long time."

You have choices if surgery is not right for you.

Fitness Fixers To Keep Your Achilles Healthy:

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Fitness Fixers on Surgery:


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Achilles surgery photo by leadfoot

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Dr. Bookspan is an award-winning scientist whose goal is to make exercise easier and healthier.