Diabetes can often lead to numbness and loss of sensation in the extremities (diabetic peripheral neuropathy), which can cause injuries and other health complications that affect the feet to go unnoticed. When an unnoticed affliction is combined with poor blood circulation and possible infection, it can lead to diabetic foot ulcers and other wounds that cannot heal on their own.
Diabetic foot ulcers and other unhealing wounds are a common complication of poorly controlled diabetes, and if neglected they can lead to dangerous infection that can require surgery or even amputation. Anyone with diabetes can develop foot ulcers, but the good news is that they can usually be prevented with caution and proper foot care.
Identifying Foot Ulcers
Foot ulcers are caused by skin tissue breaking down to explore the layers beneath, possibly even all the way to the bone. They usually develop on big toes and the balls of the feet, though they can develop anywhere on the foot.
Diabetic ulcers are commonly caused by poor circulation, a form of vascular disease in which blood doesn’t flow to your feet properly; nerve damage, which removes the pain that could have warned about the wounds that develop into ulcers; high blood sugar, which can slow down the healing of wounds and the ability of the body to fight of infection; and irritated or wounded feet, which can become infected and develop into ulcers or other problems.
One of the first signs of a foot ulcer is drainage from your foot, which might leave stains on your socks or shoes. Also keep an eye (and nose) out for unusual swelling, irritation, redness, and odors. The clearest sign of a serious foot ulcer is black tissue surrounding the wound, which forms due to the lack of healthy blood flow to the area, causing partial or complete gangrene. In such cases, it may be accompanied by smelly discharge, pain, or numbness.
If you have diabetes, check your feet regularly and don’t hesitate to consult with your doctor, as symptoms of foot ulcers won’t always show up before the ulcer has already become infected. Keep an eye out for any skin discoloration, particularly tissue that has turned black, and note any pain around an area that is callused or irritated. Ensure your shoes fit properly, wash your feet regularly, keep your feet dry, and trim your toenails properly (straight across, not rounded).
Treatment for diabetic foot ulcers will begin with keeping off of your feet (pressure from walking can aggravate the disorder), and may require you to wear diabetic shoes, casts, foot braces, compression wraps, or shoe inserts. It may also include antibiotics, enzyme treatments, or other medication. Many foot ulcers can be healed without surgery, but if no other treatment proves successful, a minor or major surgery may be required to avoid amputation.