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Diabetes - foot ulcers

Alternative names

Diabetic foot ulcer; Ulcer - foot

What to expect at home

If you have diabetes, you have an increased chance of developing foot sores, or ulcers, also called diabetic ulcers.

Foot ulcers are the most common reason for hospital stays for people with diabetes. It may take weeks or even several months for foot ulcers to heal. Diabetic ulcers are often painless.

Whether or not you have a foot ulcer, you will need to learn more about taking care of your feet.

Debridement

Debridement is the process to remove dead skin and tissue. Your doctor or nurse will need to do this to be able to see your foot ulcer. There are many ways to do this. One way is to use a scalpel and special scissors.

  • The skin surrounding the wound is cleaned and disinfected.
  • The wound is probed with a metal instrument to see how deep it is and to see if there is any foreign material or object in the ulcer.
  • The doctor cuts away the dead tissue, then washes out the ulcer.
  • Your sore may seem bigger and deeper after the doctor or nurse debrides it. The ulcer should be red or pink in color and look like fresh meat.

Other ways to remove dead or infected tissue are to:

  • Put your foot in a whirlpool bath.
  • Use a syringe and catheter (tube) to wash away dead tissue.
  • Apply wet to dry dressings to the area to pull off dead tissue.
  • Put special chemicals, called enzymes, on your ulcer. These dissolve dead tissue from the wound.
  • Put special maggots on the ulcer. The maggots eat only the dead skin and produce chemicals that help the ulcer heal.

Taking pressure off your foot ulcer

Foot ulcers are partly caused by too much pressure on one part of your foot.

Your doctor may ask you to wear special shoes, or a brace or a special cast. You may need to use a wheelchair or crutches until the ulcer has healed. These devices will take the pressure off of the ulcer area. This will help speed healing.

Be sure to wear shoes that do not put a lot of pressure on only one part of your foot.

  • Wear shoes made of canvas, leather, or suede. Do not wear shoes made of plastic or other materials that do not allow air to pass in and out of the shoe.
  • Wear shoes you can adjust easily. They should have laces, Velcro, or buckles.
  • Wear shoes that fit properly and are not too tight. You may need a special shoe made to fit your foot.
  • Do not wear shoes with pointed or open toes, such as high heels, flip-flops, or sandals.

Wound care and dressings

To care for your wound:

  • Keep your blood sugar level under tight control. This helps you heal faster.
  • Keep the ulcer clean and bandaged.
  • Cleanse the wound daily, using a wound dressing or bandage.
  • Try to take fewer steps.
  • Do not walk barefoot unless your doctor tells you it is OK.

Your doctor or nurse may use different kinds of dressings to treat your ulcer.

Wet-to-dry dressings are often used first. This process involves applying a wet dressing to your wound. As the dressing dries, it absorbs wound material. When the dressing is removed, some of the tissue comes off with it.

  • Your doctor or nurse will tell you how often you need to change the dressing.
  • You may be able to change your own dressing, or family members may be able to help.
  • A visiting nurse may also help you.

Other types of dressings are:

  • Dressing that contains medicine
  • Skin substitutes

Keep your dressing and the skin around it dry. Try not to get healthy tissue around your wound too wet from your dressings. This can soften the healthy tissue and cause more foot problems.

When to call the doctor

Call your doctor if you have any of these signs and symptoms of infection:

  • Redness, increased warmth, or swelling around the wound
  • Extra drainage
  • Pus
  • Odor
  • Fever or chills
  • Increased pain
  • Increased firmness around the wound

Also call your doctor if your foot ulcer is very white, blue, or black.

References

American Diabetes Association. Standards of medical care in diabetes -- 2014. Diabetes Care. 2014;37:S14-S80.

Brownlee M, Aiello LP, Cooper ME, et al. Complications of diabetes mellitus. In: Melmed S, Polonsky KS, Larsen PR, Kronenberg HM, eds. Williams Textbook of Endocrinology. 12th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011: chap 33.

Kim PJ, Steinberg JS. Complications of the diabetic foot. Endocrinol Metab Clin N Am. 2013;42:833-847.


Review Date: 8/5/2014
Reviewed By: Brent Wisse, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Metabolism, Endocrinology & Nutrition, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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