A foot or leg amputations is one of the most dreaded complications of diabetes. In the US, more than 65,00 such amputations occur each year.
But the tragedy does not stop there. According to recent research, about half of all people who have a foot amputation die within five years of the surgery-a worse mortality rate than most cancers. That's partly because people with diabetes who have amputations often have poorer glycemic control and more complications such as kidney disease. Amputation also can lead to increased pressure on the remaining limb and the possibility of new ulcers and infections.
Latest development: To combat the increasingly widespread problem of foot infections and amputations, new guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of diabetic foot infections have been created by the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA).
What you need to know...
Diabetes can lead to foot infections in two main ways-peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage that can cause loss of sensation in the feet)... and ischemia (inadequate blood flow).
To understand why these conditions can be so dangerous, think back to the last time you had a pebble inside your shoe. How long did it take before the irritation became unbearable? Individuals with peripheral neuropathy and ischemia usually don't feel any pain in their feet. Without pain, the pebble will stay in the shoe and eventually cause a sore on the sole of the foot.
Similarly, people with diabetes will not feel the rub of an ill-fitting shoe or the pressure of standing on one foot too long, so they are at risk of developing pressure sores or blisters.
These small wounds can lead to big trouble. About 25% of people with diabetes will develop a foot ulcer-ranging from mild to severe at some point in their lives. Any ulcer, blister, cut or irritation has the potential to become infected. If the infection becomes too severe to treat effectively with antibiotics, amputation of a foot or leg may be the only way to prevent the infection from spreading throughout the body and save the person's life.
A fast-moving danger
Sores on the foot can progress rapidly. While some foot sores remain unchanged for months, it is possible for an irritation to lead to an open wound (ulcer), infection and amputation in as little as a few days. That is why experts recommends that people with diabetes seek medical care promptly for any open sore on the feet or any new area of redness or irritation that could possibly lead to an open wound.
Important: Fully half of diabetic foot ulcers are infected and require immediate medical treatment and sometimes hospitalization.
Don't try to diagnose yourself-diagnosis requires a trained medical expert. An ulcer that appears very small on the surface could have actually spread underneath the skin, so you very well could be seeing just a small portion of the infection.
What your doctor will do
The first step is to identify the bacteria causing the infection. To do this, physicians collect specimens from deep inside the wound. Once the bacteria have been identified, the proper antibiotics can be prescribed.
Physicians also need to know the magnitude of the infection-for example, whether there is bone infection, abscesses or other internal problems. Therefore, all diabetes patients who have new foot infections should have X-rays. If more detailed imaging is needed, an MRI or a bone scan may be ordered.
The doctor will then classify the wound and infection as mild, moderate or severe and create a treatment plan.
How to get the best treatment
Each person's wound is unique, so there are no cookie-cutter treatment plans. However, most treatment plans should include...
A diabetes foot-care team. For moderate or severe infections, a team of experts should coordinate treatment. This will be done for you-by the hospital or your primary care physician. The number of specialists on the team depends on the patient's specific needs but may include experts in podiatry and vascular surgery. In rural or smaller communities, this may be done via online communication with experts from larger hospitals (telemedicine).
Antibiotic treatment. Milder infections usually involve a single bacterium. Antibiotics will typically be needed for about one week. With more severe infections, multiple bacteria are likely involved, so you will require multiple antibiotics, and treatment will need to continue for a longer period-sometimes four weeks or more if bone is affected.
If the infection is severe... or even moderate but complicated by, say, poor blood circulation, hospitalization may be required for a few days to a few weeks, depending on the course of the recovery.
Wound care. Many patients who have foot infections receive antibiotic therapy only, which is often insufficient. Proper wound care is also necessary. In addition to frequent wound cleansing and dressing changes, this may include surgical removal of dead tissue (debridement)... and the use of specially designed shoes or shoe inserts-provided by a podiatrist-to redistribute pressure off the wound (off-loading).
Surgery. Surgery doesn't always mean amputation. It is sometimes used not only to remove dead or damaged tissue or bone but also to improve blood flow to the foot.
If an infection fails to improve: The first question physicians know to ask is: "Is the patient complying with wound care instructions?" Too many patients lose a leg because they don't take their antibiotics as prescribed or care for the injury as prescribed.
Never forget: Following your doctors' specific orders could literally mean the difference between having one leg or two.