Diabetes and amputation

Amputation is a major complication of diabetes. If you have diabetes, your doctor has likely recommended that you check your feet each day, but you may not have known why. Read on to learn how diabetes can lead to amputation and how to help prevent it.

In some cases, diabetes can lead to peripheral artery disease (PAD). PAD causes your blood vessels to narrow and reduces blood flow to your legs and feet. It may also cause nerve damage, known as peripheral neuropathy. This could prevent you from feeling pain.

If you can’t feel pain, you may not realize you have a wound or ulcer on your feet. You may continue putting pressure on the affected area, which can cause it to grow and become infected.

Reduced blood flow can slow wound healing. It can also make your body less effective at fighting infection. As a result, your wound may not heal. Tissue damage or death (gangrene) may occur, and any existing infection may spread to your bone.

If the infection cannot be stopped or the damage is irreparable, amputation may be necessary. The most common amputations in people with diabetes are the toes, feet, and lower legs.

In 2010, 73,000 American adults who have diabetes and are over age 20 had amputations. That may sound like a lot, but amputations account for only a small percentage of the over 29 million people in the United States with diabetes. Better diabetes management and foot care has caused lower limb amputations to be reduced by half over the last 20 years.

With ongoing diabetes management, foot care, and wound care, many people with diabetes can limit their risk of amputation or prevent it entirely.

The best way to prevent amputation and other severe diabetes complications is to manage your blood sugar. There are several ways you can do this, including:

  • eating a healthy diet of lean meats, fruits and vegetables, fiber, and whole grains
  • avoiding sugar-sweetened juice and soda
  • reducing stress
  • exercising for at least 30 minutes daily
  • maintaining a healthy weight and blood pressure
  • checking your blood sugar levels regularly
  • taking your insulin and other diabetes medications as directed by your doctor

Good foot care may help you prevent wounds or ulcers from becoming problematic. Some foot care tips are:

  • Do a daily foot check of your entire foot. Look for redness, wounds, bruising, blisters, and discoloration.
  • Use a magnifying mirror to help you get a closer look at your feet.
  • If you are unable to check your feet, have someone else check them for you.
  • Regularly check your feet for sensation using a feather or other light object.
  • Regularly check to see if your feet can feel warm and cold temperatures.
  • Wear thin, clean, dry socks that don’t have elastic bands.
  • Wiggle your toes throughout the day and move your ankles frequently to keep the blood flowing in your feet.

Report any foot problems and neuropathy symptoms such as numbness, burning, and tingling to your doctor right away.

Check out: Finding the right diabetic socks »

Common foot problems that are nuisances to most people may become major problems if you have diabetes. If you don’t know they’re there, simple injuries may quickly become infected or cause ulcers.

If you experience any of these foot conditions, contact your doctor for an evaluation:

  • fungal infections, such as athlete’s foot
  • splinters
  • ingrown toenails
  • corns
  • bunions
  • callouses
  • plantar warts
  • chilblains
  • hammertoes
  • dry skin
  • gout
  • heel pain or heel spurs

Diabetes is a sneaky disease. In many cases, it doesn’t cause unusual symptoms. If you don’t have symptoms, you may think the disease is under control and not take it seriously. If you have diabetes and your blood sugar isn’t well-managed, take steps immediately to get it under control, even if you don’t have symptoms. Take your diabetes medications and talk to your doctor about the best diet and exercise plan for your situation.

If you’re not regularly checking your feet, start now. It only takes a few minutes each day. Make checking your feet part of your morning or evening routine.

To keep your feet as healthy as possible:

  • Wash them every day and dry them thoroughly. Apply a light coating of petroleum jelly to help prevent skin cracking.
  • Don’t remove callouses, bunions, corns, or warts by yourself. Get assistance from a podiatrist or your doctor.
  • Trim your toenails straight across, and try not to cut them too short.
  • Don’t go barefoot indoors or outdoors.
  • If you have trouble finding comfortable shoes that fit properly, talk to your doctor about prescription diabetic shoes.
  • Wear closed-toe shoes.
  • Avoid shoes with pointy toes.
  • Don’t soak your feet.
  • Moisture between the toes may lead to infection, so try applying cornstarch between your toes to keep the skin dry.

Amputation doesn’t have to be part of your diabetes journey. If you do all you can to manage your blood sugar and care for your feet, you’ll reduce your risk of major complications.

Keep reading: Diabetic foot pain and ulcers: Causes and treatments »