Diabetic foot ulcer

Author: Vanessa Ngan, Staff Writer, 2003.

What is a diabetic foot ulcer?

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. They occur in type 1 and in type 2 diabetes mellitus.

What causes a diabetic foot ulcer?

A diabetic foot ulcer is caused by neuropathic (nerve) and vascular (blood vessel) complications of diabetes.

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 of diabetic foot ulcer?

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

Depending on severity, a diabetic foot ulcer 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 ulcer?

Management of diabetic foot ulcer is primarily aimed at prevention. Strategies include:

Once an ulcer has developed, the cause should be determined. Is it neuropathic, vascular or both?

Whatever the cause of the ulcer, any dead tissue of the surface should be debrided (removed), the wound cleansed with antiseptic or superoxided solution, 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. 

Infection should be prevented with careful wound care and regular inspection. Antibiotics may be prescribed if there is significant infection resulting in cellulitis.

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