Save Your Remaining Leg – Be Alert to “Triggers”

by Dr. Mark Hinkes, DPM

Ÿ FACT: Diabetes is the cause of about 80% of the 120,000 non-traumatic amputations performed annually in the United States.

Ÿ FACT: Every 30 seconds, a limb is lost due to diabetes.

Ÿ FACT: After a person with diabetes has a major amputation, there is a 50% chance that he or she will have the other limb amputated within two years.

If you have had an amputation of one foot or leg, you are at higher risk of losing the other foot or leg. Worse yet, half of those who lose a leg will not survive five years.

If you have lost protective sensation for pain, have poor vision, or don’t inspect your feet, you may not be aware of a problem until there is pus or blood on your socks, and, by then, it is usually too late.

The good news is that you don’t have to be one of those statistics. But, you do have to commit to being extra vigilant in detecting problems early and taking appropriate action. A very small issue – a scratch, a misstep, a tight shoe – could be the “trigger,” the minor event, that starts you on the road to major problems. Just like a gun, a simple trigger click can lead to an uncontrolled explosion, with dreadful consequences.

If one of the following “trigger” events happens to you, take recommended actions and see your foot care specialist immediately. A visit to the doctor is a small expense when weighed against the financial, emotional and psychological cost of a second foot or leg amputation.

Toenail Issues

Toenail problems are very common and can cause pain or functional disabilities for people with diabetes. If you’ve already had an amputation, your foot care professional should cut the toenails on the remaining foot.

If you hit your nail against an object like a doorframe or chair leg, or drop something on it, your nail will suffer blunt force trauma. You may suffer a hematoma (blood under the nail) that may need to be evacuated to relieve your pain. Other treatment may include debriding (cleaning) or reducing the thickness of the nail. In some cases, the nail is permanently removed.

An ingrown toenail can be dangerous for people with diabetes. If a piece of your nail gets imbedded in the soft tissue adjacent to the nail, don’t attempt to solve this problem on your own. A podiatrist can remove a portion of the side of the nail in a painless procedure under local anesthesia. You will need to wear a surgical shoe until the site heals.

If you get a toenail fungus, mold or yeast infection, your nail may thicken and change color. A deformed toenail can scrape the adjacent toe and cause an ulcer or cause a collection of pus (abscess) to develop under the toenail as a result of pressure from the shoe against the nail. A soft tissue infection that goes unattended may turn into a bone infection.

Common Foot Problems

Inspect your feet daily, and contact a professional if you detect an unexplained foot odor, redness, warmth, pus, tenderness, pain, swelling, abnormal positioning, or if you have trouble putting weight on your foot. Fever, chills and high blood pressure combined with elevated blood sugars may mean an infection has spread; go to an Emergency Room immediately.  


Pain is a red flag; if you have any of the following foot health issues, seek medical attention.

  • Heel pain may be inflamed soft tissue but can also result from a broken bone, a tight Achilles tendon, a pinched nerve, arthritis or other problems.
  • Ankle sprains, if left untreated, increase your risk of repeated sprains and chronic ankle instability.
  • ŸBig toe stiffness and pain usually develops over time as the cartilage in the big toe joint wears down and eventually leads to arthritis. The sooner a doctor diagnoses it, the easier it is to treat.
  • ŸAchilles tendonitis causes pain and tenderness at the back of the foot or heel, usually from a sudden increase in physical activity.
  • ŸPinched nerves, neuritis and neuromas are nerve problems that can affect the front of the foot, heel and/or ankle. The most common nerve problem in people with diabetes is a burning, shooting, tingling or numbing feeling in the area of the toes and just behind the toes on the bottom of the foot.

Testing is available to identify each of the possible reasons for your pain, so there is no need to suffer when it can be diagnosed and treated.


If you have diabetes, you have a greater risk for complications from wounds. Because diabetes decreases your blood flow and alters the function of your immune system, your injuries are slower to heal than those in someone who does not have the disease. If you also have peripheral sensory neuropathy (the loss of protective sensation of pain in your feet), you won’t necessarily notice an injury right away.

There’s no such thing as a “minor” wound to the foot when you have diabetes; even a small foot sore can turn into an ulcer that, if not properly treated, can lead to amputation.

Any wound that doesn’t heal in four weeks is cause for concern, as it may result in a worse outcome, including amputation.

If you have a wound:

  • ŸClean it with warm soapy water and dry it well.
  • ŸPut an antibiotic cream on it immediately.
  • ŸCover it with light gauze and keep pressure off of it.
  • ŸDon’t wear closed shoes.

See your foot care specialist or a local wound center within seven days at most if the wound hasn’t responded to treatment.

Foot Ulcers

A foot ulcer is an open sore, wound or hole somewhere on your foot – a crater-shaped break in the skin. These ulcers often occur in high-pressure areas – under or around a corn or callus. The break may appear to be small, but a larger ulcer may be hidden under the skin growth or keratosis. Up to 82% of foot ulcers are related to pressure from narrow or otherwise inadequate or improperly fitted footwear. Foot ulcers can be caused by painless or silent trauma from mechanical, chemical or thermal origin.

Most ulcers that lead to amputation can be prevented through daily foot inspection and care, regular visits to your physician and podiatrist, foot-care education, wearing proper shoes, and early recognition and treatment of any suspected trouble areas. A special infrared thermometer can be used to check your foot temperature once a day; a four-degree difference between one region of the foot compared to the other foot requires professional attention.


Foot infections in people with diabetes become more severe and take longer to cure than the same infections in people without diabetes. They account for the largest number of diabetes-related hospital admissions and are the most common non-traumatic cause of amputations. If left untreated, infections can threaten life and limb.

If you have a bacterial infection, it means that bacteria have penetrated your skin – the protective envelope that covers your body. Most infections start off as mild infections but also have the potential to become serious. Foot infections often start out small and are relatively easy to treat. A doctor can best determine the cause and appropriate treatment. By identifying the specific bacteria causing the problem, the most-effective antibiotic and method of delivery (oral, topical, intravenous, injection) can be prescribed.

A bone infection, or osteomyelitis, for example, is the most-feared foot complication for a person with diabetes. Bone infections most often occur when bacteria gain access to the bone from a nearby soft tissue infection or foot ulcer. Early detection can limit the destruction of the bone and may resolve the infection with antibiotics rather than surgery. Osteomyelitis in the diabetic foot can lead to limb loss and life-threatening complications, such as blood poisoning, known as septicemia.

The dark, moist and warm environment inside your shoe is the perfect place for mold, yeast and fungus to prosper. Infections caused by these troublemakers may occur on your nails, between your toes, or on the sides or bottom of your foot. They are usually responsible for superficial skin infections on your foot, often referred to as tinea pedis, or “athlete’s foot.”

If you notice whitish, inflamed, itchy and peeling skin on the foot, you may think you just have dry skin, but you may have a mold, yeast or fungal infection. Do not scratch this itch because the infection can spread to other parts of your body via your hands.

Practice Preventive Foot Health

If you practice preventive foot-health behaviors, the chances of developing a problem will be minimal. You will identify problems early and resolve them promptly.

Inspecting your feet every day is the most cost-effective way to prevent foot issues and reduce your healthcare costs. Exercise, proper nutrition and smoking cessation, which are important in diabetes care in general, are also important in preventing amputations.

For more information and to learn about Dr. Hinkes’ book Keep the Legs You Stand On, please visit www.amputationprevention.com.

This information is provided for general educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the specific advice of your doctor or other healthcare professional. Contact your doctor or other healthcare professional immediately if you have an emergency.


Author Notes

Dr. Mark HinkesDr. Mark Hinkes is chief of podiatry and director of podiatric medical education at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center/Tennessee Valley Healthcare System in Nashville, Tennessee, and author of Keep the Legs You Stand On, the first book on foot health for people with diabetes that focuses on amputation prevention.

He was chairman of the Preservation Amputation Care and Treatment (PACT) Program for a decade. He is certified by the American Board of Podiatric Surgery and the American Professional Wound Care Association and is a diplomat of the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons. He is a member of the American Podiatric Medical Association, the Federal Services Podiatric Medical Association, and the American Diabetes Association.

Dr. Hinkes earned a B.S. in Psychology from Loyola University of Chicago, Illinois, in 1973 and graduated from the Ohio College of Podiatric Medicine in 1976. He trained at Westchester General Hospital in Miami, Florida, and opened a private medical practice there with privileges at Westchester, South Miami and Baptist Hospitals and Kendall Regional Medical Center. In Florida, he taught podiatric medicine to undergraduates at Barry University, was president of the Dade County Podiatric Medical Association, and became bilingual in English and Spanish.

In 1998, he left South Florida to join the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salem, Virginia, as chief of their podiatric service. He served as the VA’s national field advisor for quality assurance in podiatric medicine. 

During his 30+ year career, Dr. Hinkes has also served as a consultant, clinical instructor, a lecturer and an author of peer-reviewed journal articles. In his leisure time, he enjoys gardening, traveling, and creating stained glass art.

Dr. Hinkes recently became a member of the AmputeeNews.com editorial board.

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