What is tendon repair surgery?

Tendon repair is surgery done to treat a torn or otherwise damaged tendon. Tendons are the soft, band-like tissues that connect muscles to bone. When the muscles contract, the tendons pull the bones and cause the joints to move.

When tendon damage occurs, movement may be seriously limited. The damaged area may feel weak or painful.

Tendon repair surgery may be helpful for people who have tendon injuries that are making it difficult for them to move a joint or are very painful.

Tendon repair is done to bring back normal movement to a joint. Tendon injury may occur anywhere in the body where there are tendons. The joints that are most commonly affected by tendon injuries are the shoulders, elbows, ankles, knees, and fingers.

A tendon injury may occur from a laceration (cut) that goes past the skin and through the tendon. A tendon injury is also common from contact sports injuries such as football, wrestling, and rugby.

According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, “jersey finger” is one of the most common sports injuries affecting the tendons. It may occur when one player grabs the jersey of another player and gets their finger caught on the jersey. When the other player moves, the finger is pulled, and in turn the tendon is pulled off the bone.

Tendon damage can also occur in rheumatoid arthritis, an inflammatory disease of the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis can involve the tendons, causing them to tear.

Generally, during tendon repair a surgeon will:

  • make one or more small incisions (cuts) in the skin over the damaged tendon
  • sew the torn ends of the tendon together
  • check the surrounding tissue to make sure no other injuries have occurred, such as injury to the blood vessels or nerves
  • close the incision
  • cover the area with sterile bandages or dressings
  • immobilize or splint the joint so as to allow the tendon to heal

If there isn’t enough healthy tendon to reconnect, the surgeon may perform a tendon graft using a piece of tendon from another part of the body. It may be from the foot or toe, for example. On occasion, a tendon transfer (moving a tendon from one area to another) may be useful in restoring function.

Anesthesia (pain medication) is used during tendon repair to prevent the patient from feeling pain during the surgery.

The types of anesthesia are:

  • Local anesthesia. The area where the surgery is to be performed is numbed and pain-free.
  • Regional anesthesia. The surrounding area and the area where the surgery is to be performed is numbed and pain-free.
  • General anesthesia. The patient is unconscious (asleep) and unable to feel pain.

Risks associated with tendon repair include:

  • scar tissue, which may form and prevent the joints from moving smoothly
  • some loss of joint use
  • stiffness of the joint
  • re-tearing of the tendon

Risks for anesthesia include reaction to medication such as difficulty breathing, rash, or itching. Risks for surgery in general include bleeding and infection.

Tendon repairs are usually done on an outpatient basis. This means the patient can go home after the surgery. If the patient does stay in the hospital, it’s usually for a short period of time.

Healing can take up to 12 weeks. The injured tendon may need to be supported with a splint or cast to take tension off of the repaired tendon.

Physical therapy or occupational therapy is usually necessary to return movement in a safe manner. Expect movement to return gradually, with some stiffness.

You may need treatment after the surgery to minimize scar tissue. Too much scar tissue can make it difficult to move the damaged tendon.

Tendon repairs can be very successful if they’re done along with proper physical therapy or occupational therapy. As a general rule, the sooner tendon repair surgery is done after the injury, the easier the surgery is and the easier the recovery.

In some cases, long-term complications may develop. Stiffness may be long-lasting. Some tendon injuries, such as injuries to the flexor tendon in the arm, can be very difficult to repair.

Before surgery, discuss potential outcomes with your doctor so that you have a realistic view of your individual outlook.