Amputation and Limb Loss

Overview

Amputation, or limb loss, is the removal of part or all of a body part that is enclosed by skin, such as an arm, leg or finger. A person who has undergone an amputation is called an amputee.

Causes

Amputation usually occurs through a surgical procedure in a hospital, and is performed to prevent the spread of gangrene as a complication of diabetes, frostbite, injury, arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), or any other illness that impairs blood circulation.
An amputation may also be performed to prevent the spread of bone cancer or to control loss of blood and infection in patients who have suffered traumatic and irreparable limb damage.

Total or partial amputations may also be caused by traumatic experiences, such as a car or machinery accident. In these types of accidents, a patient’s limb may be completely or partially severed. In such cases, immediate medical attention is required.

Risk Factors

Risk factors for amputation are primarily related to insufficient blood supply to a limb. Two of the major risk factors include diabetes, which can cause hardening in the arteries as well as non-healing ulcers, and peripheral vascular disease, which includes hardening of the arteries. These diseases most commonly occur in older men who smoke; the majority of amputations for vascular disease also occur in this population group.

Diagnosis

Your physician may diagnose a surgical amputation if blood supply to a limb or to damaged tissue on a limb is impaired. Blood supply is essential for tissue to remain healthy and to heal. Surgeons generally cut above the diseased or injured area so that a portion of healthy tissue remains to cushion bone.

Sometimes the location of an amputation may depend in part on its suitability to be fitted with an artificial limb, or prosthesis. A surgeon performing the amputation will determine the extent of the amputation needed. A minor amputation may be possible if the tissue remains healthy and has a good blood supply. A poor blood supply or badly damaged tissue on a limb may necessitate a major amputation involving most, or all of a limb.

Complications

The most important complication related to amputation or limb loss is the risk of death.
Other complications include:
  • Infections
  • Angina (chest pain)
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Pressure sores
  • Wound infection
  • Deep vein thrombosis (blood clots)
Complications may also include conditions known as phantom limb or phantom pain. Many patients experience the sensation of still feeling an amputated limb, or related pain in the amputated limb. The intensity of both phantom limb and phantom pain varies from person to person. But, in most cases, these conditions tend to subside over time.

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