A tendon rupture is a break in a tendon, the structure that joins a muscle to a bone. It can result from overuse, an injury, or an underlying condition.

Tendons are essential to body movement and control. For example, they allow people to move their joints and pick up items.

Tendon rupture can occur suddenly if a person strains a tendon or receives an injury, such as a cut to the hand or a severe blow to the knee. It can also result from long-term inflammation, such as tendnitis or persistent overuse.

A tendon rupture, or laceration, can be whole or partial. A partial rupture may heal over time, but a total rupture may need surgery.

This article examines what a tendon rupture involves, the treatment options, and recovery.

Muscular calves -2.Share on Pinterest
Ibrakovic/Getty Images

Tendon rupture involves damaging or breaking a tendon. There are tendons throughout the body, but tendons commonly affected by a rupture include:

  • Rotator cuff tendon: This tendon joins four muscles to the shoulder joint. A torn rotator cuff is when the tendon becomes wholly or partly detached from the bone.
  • Achilles tendon: This tendon is in the back of the ankle and joins the foot to the leg.
  • Flexor tendons: These run from the forearm to the hands, across the palms, and down the fingers and thumbs.
  • Patellar tendon: The patellar tendon runs from the knee joint to the shin bone, or tibia.
  • Quadriceps tendon: The quadriceps tendon attaches the patella to various muscles that control lower leg movement.

A ruptured tendon can cause significant pain, affect a person’s ability to use the joint that the tendon controls, and take time to heal. Some people may experience ongoing or even permanent discomfort.

How a tendon rupture affects a person and the type of treatment they need will depend on various factors. A doctor will consider where the rupture occurred, the extent of the damage, and individual factors, such as the person’s overall health.

Learn about the differences between tendons and ligaments.

Tendon rupture often results from overstraining a tendon or a traumatic injury.

Examples include:

  • overstraining a muscle during swimming, running, or other activities
  • exercising sporadically or not warming up before exercise
  • a partial or complete laceration by a knife or other sharp implement
  • a blunt trauma

Other contributing factors may include:

  • the use of some medications
  • genetic factors
  • other health conditions, such as kidney disease
  • chronic inflammation, including tendinitis or tendinosis
  • overuse injuries, or tendinopathy, due to repetitive activities such as painting or bending
  • lack of blood supply

Inflammation of the tendons can increase the risk of a tendon rupture. In tendinitis and other long-term conditions, symptoms develop over time.

Learn about the differences between tendinosis and tendonitis.

The symptoms of tendon rupture will depend on which tendon is affected and the extent of the damage.

They include:

  • pain, which may be sudden and severe
  • swelling
  • difficulty moving or controlling a joint
  • weakness or loss of sensitivity
  • inability to bear weight on a leg

People who experience a rupture of the Achilles tendon sometimes report a sound or feeling of popping or snapping. They might even feel the sensation of being kicked in the lower leg.

Learn more about Achilles tendon pain.

To diagnose a tendon rupture, a doctor will likely:

  • ask about the symptoms
  • ask what happened before symptoms began
  • carry out a range of motion or strength test to assess function
  • request an X-ray to rule out other problems, such as arthritis or a fracture
  • do a CT, MRI, or ultrasound scan to look for soft tissue damage

If tests reveal a rupture, the doctor may diagnose one of the following:

  • A partial tear: The tendon is still attached to the bone but is thinned or partly torn.
  • A full-thickness incomplete tear: The tendon is partially detached from the bone.
  • A full-thickness complete tear: The tendon is fully detached from the bone.

Learn about inflammation where tendons attach to bones.

Treatment options for a tendon rupture include home care, medical treatment, or both. The options will depend on the extent of the damage, the affected tendon, and other factors.

Tendons heal in three phases:

InflammationThe immune system removes dead and damaged tissue.around 48 hours after injury
ProliferationThe body produces collagen 3 cells to begin rebuilding the tendon.7 to 21 days
RemodelingThe body produces other cells needed to strengthen the tendon and shapes it into the required form.starts several months after the injury and can last 12 months or longer

Treatment aims to support this process.

Self and home care

Home remedies to support tendon repair may include:

Learn about stretches to strengthen the Achilles tendon.

Medical treatment

Medical treatment options include:

  • surgical options, ranging from a minimally invasive repair to a complete reconstruction
  • the use of growth factors to encourage self-repair
  • rehabilitation, such as physical therapy

Emerging evidence suggests that some types of stem cell therapy may help tendons repair.

Learn more about tendon repair.

Anyone who suspects they have ruptured a tendon should see a doctor. A full recovery is more likely with a prompt diagnosis and treatment.

It is also a good idea to seek medical advice if a doctor has recommended home treatment but symptoms are worsening or not improving.

Learn when to see a doctor for Achilles tendon pain.

Tendon repair can be a lengthy process with or without surgical treatment, as the cells and fibers need time to reform and strengthen.

The outlook for a ruptured tendon will depend on factors such as:

  • which tendon is affected
  • the type and extent of the damage
  • treatment type
  • how soon a person receives treatment
  • individual factors, such as the person’s age and overall health status

In all cases, the sooner a person receives suitable treatment, the less likely they are to have ongoing problems.

Here are some examples of what to expect:

Type of ruptureOutlook
Achilles tendonAthletes usually return to full activity, but non-athletes may have limited range of motion or other issues. There is a 40% risk of re-rupture following nonsurgical treatment and a 0.5% risk following surgery.
Rotator cuffMost people continue to see improvements for up to 12 months with or without surgery. There is a risk of re-rupture.
Patellar tendonThe outlook is good to excellent with surgery, but delayed treatment can lead to poor outcomes, such as stiffness and weakness. There is a risk of re-rupture.
Flexor tendonOutcomes vary widely, depending on a person’s age, overall health, and how closely they follow treatment guidelines. It is rare for a tendon to rupture again in the same site after surgery.
Quadriceps tendonMost people return to their usual activities after surgery, but just over half continue to have some weakness and pain in the upper leg. Surgeons aim for the treated leg to have 85–90% of the function of the other leg.

Here are some questions people often ask about tendon rupture.

How serious is a ruptured tendon?

Tendon injuries are common and can result in pain and a loss of mobility. With prompt treatment, however, many people make a full recovery.

Can a ruptured tendon heal itself?

In theory, a ruptured tendon can heal itself, but it would take a long time and may not heal properly. This can lead to ongoing pain, stiffness, and loss of mobility.

What are the early warning signs of a ruptured tendon?

This depends on which tendon is ruptured, but pain is a common sign. There may also be weakness or a loss of sensation.

If the rupture is due to an injury, the pain and loss of joint mobility will start suddenly. Some people may hear or feel the tendon pop as it breaks or detaches.

A ruptured tendon can result from exercise, an injury, and some chronic conditions, such as tendinitis. A tear can be partial or complete. For a partial tear, a doctor may recommend nonsurgical treatment. However, a complete rupture will likely need surgery.

Many people recover fully from a ruptured tendon. However, this will depend on the tendon involved, the extent of the damage, the treatment received, and individual factors, such as the person’s age and activity levels.