Diabetic Foot Ulcer
by Diane Voyatzis Norwood, MS, RD, CDE
Ulcers are slow healing wounds on the skin. Diabetic foot ulcers occur on the feet of people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Up to 15% of people with diabetes are at risk for developing foot ulcers. Diabetic foot ulcers usually occur on the bottom of the foot.
Diabetes can damage the nerves of the legs and feet. This may make it difficult to feel a blister or sore. If you don't care for a sore it may become larger and infected.
Diabetes also can causes problems with blood flow. Poor blood flow can make it difficult to heal.
The ulcer itself is usually caused by:
Risk Factors TOP
The following factors increase your chance of developing diabetic foot ulcers. If you have diabetes and any of these risk factors, tell your doctor:
Tell your doctor if you have any of these symptoms:
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Your primary doctor may refer you to a foot specialist.
Tests may include the following:
The sooner a diabetic foot ulcer is treated, the better the outcome. Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Treatment options include the following:
Good wound care is important to help the ulcer heal and prevent infection. Follow your doctor's instructions for wound care. Make sure to clean the wound regularly. Change the dressings often to prevent infection.
Constant pressure on the ulcer can make it difficult to heal. Your doctor may ask you to take some pressure off of the ulcer area. You may be given a special cast or boot. These will take the pressure off of your foot but still allow you to walk.
Blood Sugar Control TOP
Infected ulcers can raise high blood sugar levels. High blood sugar levels can then lower the body's ability to fight infections. The high level also keeps the wound from healing.
Improved blood sugar control will help you fight any infections and heal your wounds. This control is often done with adjustments in your diet or medicine. Sometimes insulin shots are needed in the short-term until your are healthy again.
Healthy Habits TOP
If you smoke, quit. Smoking can impair healing.
Wear proper footwear. Make sure it fits well.
Skin Graft TOP
Some large skin ulcers may have a hard time fully healing even with treatments above. They may need a patch of skin to help close the wound. This process is called a skin graft. Bioengineered skin graft or human skin graft may be used.
If the ulcer is infected, your doctor may recommend antibiotics. You may need to take the medicine for 4-6 weeks. Do not skip doses. Finish the medication as directed.
Your doctor may also recommend a medication to place on the ulcer. These medicine may help speed up healing.
Dead tissue can build up inside and around the wound. This tissue will slow or prevent healing. You may need a surgery to remove the dead tissue and clean the wound. This surgery is called debridement.
Bypass surgery may be needed to improve blood flow to the legs. This surgery uses healthy blood vessels to carry blood past areas of unhealthy blood vessels. The improved blood flow may help with wound healing.
Sometimes an infection is too severe or does not respond to treatment. As a last resort, amputation surgery may be needed. This is the removal a body part to stop the infection from spreading to the rest of the body.
Other Treatments TOP
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy may help with healing. This therapy is delivered in a chamber. Pure oxygen is pumped into the chamber. This helps to increase the amount of oxygen in the blood. The extra oxygen can improve healing.
Another option to help accelerate healing is using negative pressure wound therapy. A vacuum device and dressing are used to create negative pressure on the wound. This can help the wound heal faster.
If you are diagnosed with a diabetic foot ulcer, follow your doctor's instructions.
To help reduce your chance of getting diabetic foot ulcers, take the following steps:
Ulcers that do not heal or develop a severe infection may lead to amputation of the foot. About 80% of leg amputations in the US started off as diabetic foot ulcers.
American Diabetes Association
American Podiatric Medical Association
Canadian Diabetes Association
Podiatrists in Canada
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Last reviewed September 2013 by Kim Carmichael, MD
Last Updated: 9/30/2013