Diabetic foot ulcers

Author: Vanessa Ngan, Staff Writer, 2003.

What are diabetic foot ulcers?

Diabetic foot ulcers are sores on the feet that occur in 15% of diabetic patients some time during their lifetime. The risk of lower-extremity amputation is increased 8-fold in these patients once an ulcer develops.

What causes diabetic foot ulcers?

Diabetic foot ulcers are caused by neuropathic (nerve) and vascular (blood vessel) complications of the disease.

Nerve damage due to diabetes causes altered or complete loss of feeling in the foot and/or leg. This is known as peripheral neuropathy. Pressure from shoes, cuts, bruises, or any injury to the foot may go unnoticed. The loss of protective sensation stops the patient from being warned that the skin is being injured and may result in skin loss, blisters and ulcers.

Vascular disease is also a major problem in diabetes and especially affects very small blood vessels feeding the skin (microangiopathy). In this situation a doctor may find normal pulses in the feet because the arteries are unaffected. However other diabetic patients may also have narrowed arteries so that no pulse can be found in the feet (ischaemia). The lack of healthy blood flow may lead to ulceration. Wound healing is also impaired.

Vascular disease is aggravated by smoking.

What are the signs and symptoms?

It is not unusual for patients to have had diabetic foot ulcers for some time before presenting to doctors because they are frequently painless.

Depending on severity diabetic foot ulcers may be rated between 0 and 3:

0: at risk foot with no ulceration
1: superficial ulceration with no infection
2: deep ulceration exposing tendons and joints
3: extensive ulceration or abscesses

Tissue around the ulcer may become black due to the lack of healthy blood flow to the foot. In severe cases partial or complete gangrene may occur.

Diabetics are also very prone to secondary infection of the ulcer (wound infection) and surrounding skin (cellulitis).

What is the management of diabetic foot ulcers?

Management of diabetic foot ulcers is primarily aimed at preventing them. Strategies include:

Once ulcers have developed, the cause should be determined. Is it neuropathic, vascular or both?

Neuropathic ulcers must be protected from further injury until they heal, and strenuous efforts must be made to avoid another ulcer by wearing correct footwear and frequent skin examination.

Vascular or ischaemic ulcers should be evaluated by a vascular surgeon to determine the extent of damage and whether surgery is necessary; in severe cases this may entail partial amputation of the limb.

Whatever the cause of the ulcer, any dead tissue of the surface should be debrided (removed) and synthetic wound dressings applied to ensure a moist environment. Honey dressings may also be useful. Expert advice should be obtained, as the best dressing will depend on the type of ulcer and stage of healing.

Antibiotics may be prescribed if there is significant infection resulting in cellulitis.

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