A torn tendon is a common injury that can happen to anyone and requires prompt medical attention. Tendons are fibrous tissues that connect muscles to bones and enable movement. They are strong but can tear or rupture if overstretched or following trauma. Some of the most frequently torn tendons are the Achilles tendon in the heel, rotator cuff tendons in the shoulder, biceps tendon in the upper arm, quadriceps tendon in the thigh, and patellar tendon in the knee.
When a tendon tears, it is important to see a doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment. But with many types of doctors, it can be confusing to know what type of doctor to see. Generally, primary care physicians and orthopedic specialists are the main doctors involved in treating torn tendons. This article provides an overview of which doctors to see for common tendon injuries.
Primary Care Physician
A primary care physician (PCP), including general practitioners, family medicine doctors, and internists, can serve as the first point of contact for a suspected torn tendon. Primary care doctors have broad medical training to evaluate, diagnose, and treat a wide range of health conditions and injuries. They can examine the affected area, assess symptoms like pain and swelling, and order imaging tests like x-rays or MRI scans to confirm a tendon tear.
For minor or partial tendon tears, a PCP may be able to provide pain management, recommend rest and immobilization, or perform a minor intervention in the office, like a tendon injection. However, they will often refer patients to an orthopedic specialist for further evaluation and definitive treatment. PCPs can coordinate care between different specialists and provide follow-up care during the recovery process. Seeing a PCP first allows for a comprehensive assessment and facilitates appropriate specialist referral when needed.
An orthopedic surgeon is a medical doctor who specializes in injuries and diseases of the musculoskeletal system. This includes bones, joints, muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Orthopedic surgeons receive extensive training in the diagnosis and surgical and nonsurgical treatment of tendon tears and ruptures.
Patients with tendon injuries are often referred to an orthopedic surgeon for precise diagnosis and management. The surgeon will obtain the medical history, conduct a physical exam of the injured area, and order imaging studies to determine the location and extent of the tendon damage. Common imaging tests include MRI, ultrasound, and CT scans.
Based on the diagnosis, orthopedic surgeons will recommend the appropriate treatment options. Minor tears may be treated nonsurgically with immobilization bracing, physical therapy, steroid injections, or shockwave therapy. More significant, complete tendon tears usually require surgery to repair or reconstruct the damaged tendon. The surgeon will discuss the various surgical procedures for the affected tendon and the expected recovery course.
Following surgery, the orthopedic surgeon will oversee the rehab process and recovery timeline. Follow-up appointments to monitor healing and function are a crucial part of optimal recovery. Orthopedic doctors specialize in restoring mobility and function after tendon injuries.
Sports Medicine Doctor
Sports medicine physicians are another type of doctor that treats tendon injuries. They are medical doctors who complete residency training in primary care fields followed by a sports medicine fellowship. This provides them expertise in treating sports-related injuries in active patients of all ages.
Since tendon injuries often result from sports and exercise, it is common for athletes to see a sports medicine doctor for evaluation and management. For weekend warriors or competitive athletes with overuse tendon conditions or acute traumatic tears, a sports medicine specialist has the specialized knowledge to get them back to activity properly and safely.
Sports medicine doctors take a rehabilitation-focused approach to tendon pathology. They are experts in advanced nonsurgical techniques like platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections to promote healing. Sports medicine physicians coordinate care with physical therapists and athletic trainers for comprehensive nonsurgical treatment. For tendon tears requiring surgery, they work closely with orthopedic surgeons while supervising the postoperative rehab.
For patients aiming to return to sports after tendon injury, a sports medicine doctor has the experience to clear the patient for athletic participation once adequate strength and function are restored. Seeing a sports medicine physician ensures tendon injuries are properly treated to meet the physical demands of sport.
Podiatrists are foot and ankle specialists who treat tendon injuries in these areas, like Achilles tendon tears and posterior tibial tendon dysfunction. After college, podiatrists attend four years of podiatry school followed by three-year surgical residency programs. They are experts at diagnosing and treating foot and ankle conditions.
Podiatrists utilize x-rays, MRI scans, ultrasound, and physical exams to diagnose tendon pathology. They offer both conservative and surgical approaches. Nonsurgical options include orthotics, bracing, physical therapy, and injections. When necessary, they perform reconstructive surgery on damaged ankle or foot tendons. Podiatrists also specialize in postoperative rehabilitation to optimize outcomes.
For suspected or confirmed Achilles, peroneal, or posterior tibialis tendon tears, it is advisable to promptly seek diagnosis and treatment from a podiatrist. As specialists in foot and ankle care, they are ideally trained to get these tendons healing and functioning properly again.
Physical therapists (PTs) play a key role in rehabilitation and recovery after a torn tendon. They work closely with the doctors throughout and following treatment to help patients regain strength, mobility, and function. Physical therapy is often prescribed after surgical tendon repair but is also beneficial after nonsurgical treatment in a removable cast boot or brace.
PTs develop tailored exercise programs to gradually stretch and strengthen the healing tendon. They utilize modalities like ultrasound, massage, and flexibility exercises. The goal is to restore normal motion and mechanics of the joint. Under a PT’s supervision, patients progress from gentle range of motion to resistive exercises as the tendon-bone healing allows. Eccentric strengthening is particularly helpful for Achilles and patellar tendon tears.
Seeing a physical therapist, in conjunction with medical doctors, provides critical aftercare following torn tendon injuries. Expert PT guidance and hands-on care facilitates the recovery process. Pain and dysfunction are improved safely and efficiently.
In some cases, tendon problems are related to underlying inflammatory arthritis or autoimmune conditions. Rheumatologists specialize in musculoskeletal disorders and systematic diseases affecting connective tissue. Some rheumatologic diseases associated with tendinopathy include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Ankylosing spondylitis
- Psoriatic arthritis
- Reactive arthritis
For instance, rheumatoid arthritis can cause rotator cuff tears and Achilles tendon ruptures. Lupus may result in flexor tendon inflammation. A rheumatologist can evaluate the relationship between systemic disease and tendon damage. They specialize in diagnosing and treating autoimmune disorders as the potential source of tendon problems.
Rheumatologists also prescribe medications to reduce inflammation and immunosuppressant drugs in applicable cases. If tendon abnormalities are due to an underlying rheumatologic condition, addressing that disease is key to preventing recurrent damage and dysfunction.
When to See a Doctor
It is advisable to promptly consult a doctor if you experience signs and symptoms of a possible torn tendon. These include:
- Sudden pain in the affected area
- Inability to use the limb
- Popping or snapping sound during injury
- Visible deformity, like a gap in the tendon
Prompt diagnosis and treatment provides the best chance for optimal recovery. Even partial small tears that do not require surgery benefit from a period of immobilization and rest. Seeing a doctor right away facilitates early therapy and healing.
Tendon injuries are common but can cause significant pain, dysfunction, and disability if not properly treated. Knowing which medical specialists to consult facilitates accurate diagnosis and customized treatment specific to the affected tendon. Primary care doctors, orthopedic surgeons, podiatrists, sports medicine physicians, physical therapists, and rheumatologists all play important roles in managing torn tendons. With the appropriate combination of doctors overseeing care, patients can get on the road to recovery quickly and completely.