When Aaron Rodgers, a four-time NFL MVP, fell to the ground clutching his left ankle, millions held their collective breath. Just 75-seconds into his debut with the New York Jets, Rodgers' season was over, marking an unfortunate turn for both his career and the Jets.
But what actually happened to Rodgers? What is an Achilles rupture, and could it happen to you?
What is an Achilles Rupture?
The Achilles tendon is the largest and strongest tendon in the human body. It connects the calf muscles to the heel bone, allowing us to walk, jump, and run. When the Achilles tendon tears or snaps, it's referred to as an Achilles rupture—a severe injury that brings instant pain and limited mobility.
How Does an Achilles Rupture Occur?
An Achilles rupture typically happens during activities that involve sudden acceleration or changes in direction, like sprinting or jumping. The injury could also be a result of overuse, muscle fatigue, and wear and tear over time, particularly in athletes or active individuals.
“Quick loading of the foot, especially sudden explosive changes in direction. That's why you see it so commonly in sports like basketball where they are constantly making quicker changes in direction.” - Dr. Reid Holden, PT, DPT, OCS
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of an Achilles Rupture?
If you've ruptured your Achilles, you'll likely hear a loud "pop" followed by sharp pain in the back of your ankle. You may also experience swelling, bruising, and difficulty walking or standing on the affected foot.
Is an Achilles Rupture a Career-Ending Injury for Athletes?
Rodgers is far from the first athlete to face this challenge. About 62% of veteran athletes return to the field post-injury, though their performance often diminishes according to studies. While Rodgers' advanced age adds complexity to his case, his position as a quarterback—less reliant on bursts of speed—could make his return more feasible.
But what does this mean for you, the everyday athlete or fitness enthusiast? While you may not have a multi-million-dollar contract or a stadium full of fans, the impact of an Achilles rupture on your life can be significant. This injury could halt your recreational sports endeavors, gym routines, or even just your daily activities for an extended period. Recovery involves a rigorous rehabilitation process that could last up to a year, impacting not only your physical wellness but possibly also your mental health due to reduced mobility and lifestyle changes. Similar to Rodgers, your age and physical condition pre-injury will play a crucial role in how well and how quickly you recover.
How is an Achilles Rupture Diagnosed and Treated?
Diagnosis involves a physical examination and imaging tests like an MRI or ultrasound. The gold standard for treatment is surgical intervention to reattach the severed tendon.
"How is it diagnosed, in the "Blue tent" you see on the sideline you can do a squeeze or Thompson squeeze test and you know pretty immediately, but it is confirmed on MRI when they head into the tunnel. Unfortunately, these patients/players and the training staff typically know as soon as it happens if it is a full-thickness tear." - Dr. Reid Holden PT, DPT, OCS
What Does Recovery from an Achilles Rupture Look Like?
"The only option for a full-thickness tear is surgery and that includes months of rehab, realistically six-months or more if the goal is to get back to sport." - Dr. Reid Holden PT, DPT, OCS
Can an Achilles Rupture Be Prevented?
Prevention methods include regular mobility, strengthening exercises focused on the calf and Achilles tendon, and wearing appropriate footwear.
While not all injuries can be prevented, there are strategies to reduce the risk of an Achilles tendon rupture:
• Strengthening Exercises: Regularly exercising the calf muscles can improve the strength of the Achilles tendon.
• Stretching: Regular stretching of the calf muscles can improve flexibility and reduce the risk of injury. It's especially important to stretch before and after physical activity.
• Gradual Progression: If you're starting a new exercise regimen or sport, it's essential to progress gradually. Rapid increases in intensity or duration can overload the Achilles tendon.
• Proper Footwear: Wear shoes that support your arch and cushion your heel. If you're involved in a sport, ensure that your footwear is appropriate for the activity.
• Avoid Overuse: Overuse can lead to inflammation of the tendon (tendinitis) which can weaken it over time and make it more prone to rupture. Regularly changing your exercise routine and allowing adequate recovery time can be beneficial.
What's the Long-Term Impact of an Achilles Rupture?
While many athletes do return to their sport, a decrease in athletic burst is often noted. For the general population, the long-term impact could involve adjustments to daily activities and exercise routines.
But let's shift the focus to you, the weekend warrior or daily exerciser. What does a decrease in "athletic burst" mean in everyday terms? It could mean struggling to keep up in your local sports league, or feeling a noticeable decline in your performance at the gym. You might find that you're not as agile or quick during your morning jog, or that it takes you longer to complete that hike you used to breeze through. This isn't just about athletics; reduced mobility could impact your daily life in subtle yet profound ways—from playing with your kids to completing household chores efficiently.
It's essential to note that while these adjustments might seem limiting at first, they don't necessarily mean an end to your active lifestyle. With the right guidance from healthcare professionals and possibly some changes to your workout regimen, you can continue to lead a fulfilling, physically active life—albeit with some new considerations.
Does Age Matter in Recovery—For NFL Stars and the Rest of Us?
In the world of professional sports, age is more than just a number. Aaron Rodgers, who is approaching 40, faces a longer and potentially more complicated recovery journey from his Achilles rupture. Younger athletes often bounce back quicker and may even return to pre-injury performance levels, but Rodgers' case is clouded by his upcoming milestone birthday.
However, age isn't just a concern for elite athletes. How does this relate to you or perhaps an older relative who's experienced a similar injury? The general rule applies: the younger you are, the more resilient your body tends to be, leading to faster and more complete recoveries.
But don't let age discourage you. Even if you're closer in age to Rodgers than to a college athlete, advanced physical therapy techniques and lifestyle adaptations can still significantly aid your recovery. What does this mean in practice? Perhaps your post-injury focus shifts from marathon training to lower-impact activities like swimming or cycling. Or maybe you'll need a more extended period of physical therapy, or a more tailored exercise regimen, to regain strength and mobility.
Is the Injury More Common in Certain Sports or Activities?
Although Rodgers' case might make it seem like a football-centric injury, Achilles ruptures are commonly seen in basketball, soccer, and even non-athletic activities like climbing stairs.
In The End
The Achilles rupture—while devastating—is often a life-changing event that demands extensive rehabilitation and lifestyle adjustments. With proper diagnosis, treatment, and a strong rehab program, many people bounce back to lead active lives. And as we await Rodgers' next steps, we're reminded of the fragility of human athleticism and the incredible feats of recovery that modern medicine allows.