Amputation is the act of removing a part of your body through surgery. It is most common to have an arm, leg, finger, or toe removed. You may need to have an amputation if you have:
- An infection.
- A defect or deformity.
- Severe burns or frostbite.
- A severe tumor or ulcer.
- Severe damage that can’t be corrected. This often caused by an accident, such as a car wreck or explosion.
- Peripheral arterial disease (PAD), or gangrene (loss of blood flow). This is most common if you have diabetes.
Path to improved health
An amputation can be planned or unplanned. Emergency amputations can occur if you were in a traumatic accident. Prior to planned surgery, your doctor will talk you through the procedure. You may need a partial or full amputation. Partial amputation may be just a part of a finger, toe, hand, or foot. For an arm or leg, the doctor may amputate below the elbow or knee or may need to remove the whole limb. Based on the cause, you may require multiple amputations.
The type of amputation will determine your surgery. The doctor may use general anesthesia to put you to sleep. Or they may sedate you and use an epidural to numb half of your body. In an epidural, medicine is injected into the spinal fluid in your lower back through a thin tube called a catheter. The medicine numbs the affected area.
All surgeries should occur in a hospital and require a stay. You will need to fast (not eat or drink) prior to surgery and stop taking some medicines. If you need an amputation and are a smoker, stop smoking. It can complicate surgery or recovery.
After the amputation, the doctor will stitch up the wound and bandage it. This reduces your risk of infection or future problems. At first, your wound will be swollen, or inflamed. The doctor may insert a tube to drain excess fluid. You also may need medicine to manage your pain and discomfort.
Things to consider
As with most surgeries, amputation has some risks. You may have a bad reaction to the anesthesia or pain medicine. You are at risk of infection, pneumonia, or a heart attack. Blood clots, deep vein thrombosis (DVT), and bleeding also are threats. Your doctor will help prevent these in the hospital.
After surgery, you may need to wear a compression sleeve or sock. This helps increase blood flow and reduce swelling. It also supports and shapes your wound. You should have 1 or 2 extra sleeves/socks, so you can change them each day. You will need to take very good care of your wound. Wash the area at least once a day. Keep it as clean as possible using warm water and mild soap. Don’t leave your wound underwater. It can soften the skin and cause injury. If the skin around your wound is rough or dry, you can apply lotion.
Contact your doctor if you have signs of infection, such as:
- red, hot, or tender skin
- increased swelling or pain
- fluid discharge or pus.
Amputation is a big operation and life change. Treatment will require a rehabilitation plan. This includes physical therapy to improve feeling and function. You’ll need to maintain or build up muscle strength. You will learn how to move or use a wheelchair, if needed.
It is common to have continued discomfort, or “phantom” pain. This is a side effect of amputation. It causes you to feel pain in the limb that was removed. Phantom pain often improves over time. Talk to your doctor about how to manage this. They may suggest medicine or other types of treatment. Massage, stretching, and use of ice or heat packs can relieve pain and reduce swelling. They also may give you brain exercises to work through the phantom pain.
Amputations are emotional, as well. A support group or counseling can help to process your feelings. If you feel depressed, anxious, or suicidal, seek help right away. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255.
Some people qualify for a prosthetic, or manmade, limb. This will depend on your type of amputation and state of health. People who have heart disease or a weak immune system may not qualify. You may choose not to get a prosthetic. Talk to your doctor about the benefits and risks. There are different prosthetic limb options. Some are more about looks, and others focus on function. The process for getting a prosthetic can start once your wound heals. This may be several weeks or months after surgery, once swelling has gone down. Wearing a prosthetic often is painful at first. You have to dull the skin around your wound. This allows the prosthetic to fit and makes it comfortable in the long-term.
If you have diabetes, you can help prevent PAD and amputation. Your family doctor needs to evaluate your feet at least once a year. He or she may refer you to a podiatrist as needed. Manage your diabetes according to your doctor’s orders. Wear fitted and supportive footwear. Wash your feet daily, and do not go barefoot. Elevate your feet when you sit or lie down to increase blood flow. Maintain a healthy diet and be more active. Do not smoke, as that increases your risk of needing amputation. Seek health care if your feet change color or become swollen, numb, or infected. If you have an open cut or wound or an ingrown nail, treat it right away.
Questions to ask your doctor
- What type of amputation surgery do I need?
- What forms of treatment and rehabilitation will I need?
- How long until I can return to work?
- What kinds of activities will I be able to do after amputation?
- How does a prosthetic limb work?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.