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Amputation is an operation in which a surgeon removes part of the body, usually because of infection, disease, or injury, when a limb or body part cannot be saved.

Reasons for amputation

Reasons for amputation include:

  • Poor circulation because of damage or narrowing of the arteries (peripheral arterial disease)
  • Complications from diabetes that is not well controlled
  • Severe injury, including traffic accidents or burns
  • Cancer in bones or muscles
  • Severe infection that hasn't responded to treatment, such as gangrene
  • Thickening of nerve tissue (neuroma)
  • Frostbite

Minor amputations cover parts of the body, such as toes and fingers. Major amputations involve whole limbs, or parts of a limb.

The procedure will usually be carried out under general anaesthetic or anaesthetic affecting a specific part of the body.

The goal of the operation will be to remove enough of the affected body part as necessary, while retaining as much healthy bone and tissue as possible.

The amputation operation

During the operation the surgeon will:

  • Remove the diseased tissue and any crushed bone
  • Smooth uneven areas of bone
  • Seal off blood vessels and nerves
  • Cut and shape muscles so that the stump, or end of the limb, will be able to have an artificial limb (prosthesis) attached to it if appropriate

After an amputation

Depending on the body part removed, recovery in hospital may be followed by physiotherapy and fitting sessions for prosthetic limbs.

Instructions will be given for caring for the skin over the bone stump.

Losing a limb can be a shock, and mental health counselling may be recommended to help with adjustments and emotional support.

Help may be needed at home and to cope with tasks made harder by the removal of a limb, including use of a wheelchair. Car adaptations may be necessary.

In some cases, people experience 'phantom pain' apparently coming from the limb that has been removed.

Phantom limb sensations will usually disappear, or lessen, over time. However, when phantom limb pain continues for more than 6 months, it is less likely to improve.

Although the limb is no longer there, the nerve endings at the site of the amputation continue to send pain signals to the brain that make the brain think the limb is still there. Sometimes, the brain memory of pain is retained and is interpreted as pain, regardless of signals from injured nerves.

As well as pain relief, treatment for phantom pain may involve massage, biofeedback and relaxation techniques.

WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on October 17, 2017

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