The Achilles tendon, the tendon that connects the calf muscles to the heel bone, is named for the greatest warrior of the ancient Greek pantheon. It was said that upon his birth, Achilles’ mother dipped him into the River Styx by his foot, coating every inch of the young warrior’s body with magical powers of invulnerability – every inch except his heel. It was by his heel that he eventually met his downfall, struck by a well-aimed poisoned arrow at the gates of Troy. Since then, the “Achilles heel” has come to signify a person’s weak spot.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence then that the “warriors” of today face their greatest vulnerabilities not on the battlefield but on the football field. Achilles ruptures alone take out more football players than possibly any other injury, with roughly 36% of NFL players never returning to professional play. This statistic looms large in the over the heads of fans, players, and coaches alike after three separate Achilles injuries struck football teams during the pre-season this past week: two professional teams and one college team.
A Nearly Career-Ending Injury
Brandon Oliver, running back for the San Diego Chargers, sustained an injury Sunday in an exhibition game against the Minnesota Vikings. It’s hard not to read too much into Coach Mike McCoy’s statement that the team is “going to miss him.”
“It’s a shame,” he went on. “That’s why you tell players, ‘You got to show up to work every day in this business and treat it like it’s your last, because you never know.’”
The average period needed for a full recovery and return to activity level is about 4-6 months, but according to studies, it appears that professional footballers take closer to a year to bounce back to their previous level of performance.
Worth the Risk?
Tight end for the Baltimore Ravens Benjamin Watson suffered a torn Achilles Saturday night against the Detroit Lions. Coach John Harbaugh expects that Watson will be out for the entire season. Harbaugh has argued passionately against the required pre-season games. To him, these games are “not meaningful,” and holding them only increases the risk of injury for the athletes.
Football players are particularly prone to Achilles injuries, due to the explosive movements and quick agility required of the sport’s athletes.
It’s also very common for athletes to suffer repeated tendon tears, especially if the original injury did not have adequate time to heal. That’s the bind that professional and college athletes continually find themselves in: Should I take a year off to rest and risk my career now? Or should I return to play as soon as possible, and risk my career in the future?
Quarterback for the Duke Blue Devils Thomas Sirk must be kicking himself over that very dilemma right now. Sirk tore his left Achilles tendon in February of this year, and only re-injured it last Thursday during practice. Sirk’s injury will cost him his season. Sirk had already missed a season in 2013 after tearing his right Achilles.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Dr. Bob Baravarian is no stranger to Achilles tendons injured by sports. “Out of 10 Achilles ruptures we see at UFAI, probably 7 of them occurred when the patient was playing sports. You’ll take off from the ground and all of a sudden you’ll hear a pop and you won’t be able to push off as you step.” Tendon tears are often mistaken for sprained ankles. An MRI can help with the diagnosis, but a foot and ankle specialist can usually detect it after a physical exam.
Achilles tendon repair surgery can be performed as an outpatient procedure. Our surgeons utilize the PARS procedure, a revolutionary technique that allows for a very small incision, much less scarring, and a cleaner, speedier recovery. Patients wear a cast for two weeks, and then are fitted with a boot and can bear weight on the foot at 4 weeks. The tiny incision heals within a week and there’s minimal scarring. Patients can start physical therapy earlier, putting them on track faster towards their normal activities. Additionally, the tendon heals with a thinner, more natural contour for a cosmetically appealing reconstruction.
As a teaching institution, University Foot and Ankle Institute’s Fellowship Program is among the most advanced in the nation.
We at UFAI are driven to get our patients back to their normal activities with the highest level of function, in the least amount of time, using the least invasive treatments possible. From start to finish, we are with you every step of the way.
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