Diabetes often leads to diabetic peripheral neuropathy (or numbness and loss of sensation in the hands, legs, and feet), health complications of the feet such as injuries, burns, or frostbite can go unnoticed for long periods of time. Unnoticed, untreated injuries are at a high risk of infection, which combined with poor blood circulation from diabetes can lead to unhealing wounds in the feet such as diabetic foot ulcers.
Diabetic foot ulcers and similar wounds that cannot heal on their own are a frequently seen complication of diabetes, particularly in diabetes that is poorly controlled. If neglected, such wounds can become severely infected, necessitating surgery or even amputation. Fortunately, although anyone with diabetes can develop foot ulcers, careful management of your diabetes, caution, and proper foot care can usually help you prevent such wounds from arising.
Though they can develop on any part of the foot, diabetic foot ulcers are usually found on the big toe or the balls of the feet. They arise when skin tissue degrades and exposes the flesh beneath (sometimes even all the way to the bone). In addition to developing out of unnoticed, untreated wounds as mentioned above, diabetic foot ulcers can also be caused by other complications:
- Poor circulation; when blood doesn’t flow to or out of your feet properly, the aggravation on your veins or arteries can cause irritation that can grow into ulcers
- High blood sugar; this can slow down the ability of your body to heal itself and fight off infection
- Foot irritation; gradual wear of the foot from things like improperly fitted shoes can cause aggravation that can develop into a wound or full-blown ulcer
There are several signs of a diabetic foot ulcer to look out for:
- Drainage from your foot (which is often noticed as stains on your socks or shoes)
- Unusual swelling
- Irritation or redness
- Unpleasant or unusual odors
An untreated, serious foot ulcer will often be identifiable by black tissue around the wound. This develops because of the lack of blood flow to the area and is usually accompanied by smelly discharge and either pain or numbness.
One of the difficulties in identifying and treating ulcers is that without careful attention, clearer symptoms of foot ulcers might not appear until the ulcer has already become infected. It is important, if you have diabetes, to check your feet regularly and to turn to your doctor with any potential concern, particularly any of the symptoms noted above. Wash your feet regularly, keep them dry, trim your toenails properly (straight across, not rounded), and ensure that your shoes are properly and carefully fitted.
If you develop a diabetic foot ulcer, your doctor will likely begin treatment by having you keep off of your feet, as pressure from walking can aggravate the disorder. They may have you wear shoe inserts, compression wraps, diabetic shoes, or even a cast or foot brace. Further treatment might include antibiotics, enzyme treatments, and other medication. If such methods don’t bring about improvement, your doctor might recommend minor or major surgery to avoid amputation; but many foot ulcers can be healed without surgery.