Why Diabetic Foot Ulcers Are So Dangerous (and What to Do About Them)

Jan 15, 2020

If you or a loved one has diabetes, you already know about the large impact it can have on daily life. Even in the best-case scenario, regularly checking your sugar, regulating your diet and exercise, and following up with your medical team become important habits.

But when diabetes isn’t well regulated, your risk of developing much more serious complications increases substantially. Such is the case with diabetic foot ulcers—a common problem that should never ever be underestimated.

What Are Foot Ulcers?

Foot ulcers are sores that fester and develop across the foot, usually (although not always) as a complication of uncontrolled diabetes.

Maybe your ulcer started as a cut or a popped blister that never healed. Or perhaps the skin slowly broke down due to excessive, repeated friction and pressure. Structural foot defects, poorly fitting footwear, or athletic overuse can all play a role, too.

But whatever the cause, most ulcers will continue to worsen if they don’t receive treatment. That’s because diabetes reduces blood flow to the feet, which in turn limits the supply of oxygen and nutrients and impairs swift healing.

Even worse, if you aren’t paying attention, it may take hours or even days for you to notice there is even a problem. That’s because diabetes is also linked with peripheral nerve damage that can blunt your ability to feel your own feet.

Why Are Foot Ulcers So Dangerous?

Unfortunately, when you have diabetes, even seemingly minor foot wounds can quickly get infected and spiral out of control if you don’t notice and deal with them promptly. The longer ulcers remain open, the greater your risk of infection. That’s because the same circulatory issues that slow healing also reduce your body’s ability to fight off germs.

If the infection continues to worsen and spread, you may arrive at a point where amputation is the only way to stop the progression and save your life.

Just how common is this outcome? Consider that diabetes is a factor in the vast majority of preventable, non-traumatic amputations performed each year. It’s estimated that around 100,000 Americans with diabetes undergo an amputation each year, and around 85% of these incidents began with a foot ulcer.

In other words: very common, and very dangerous.

What Should I Do About My Foot Ulcer?

In order to give yourself the best chance at a quick, full recovery, foot ulcers need to be:

  • Identified as early as possible
  • Treated immediately

For the first point, it’s important to make sure you thoroughly examine your feet and ankles at least once per day, in a well lit room. Take note of any problems you see or feel: broken skin, cracked nails, bumps, red spots, even uneven temperature.

If you notice any cuts or sores that don’t improve within a day or two, you should move on to the next phase—calling our office right away. We understand how serious diabetic ulcers are and will make it a priority to see you as soon as possible.

We will carefully examine your ulcer and determine the best course of action for your care. The goal is to help the wound heal as quickly as possible while defending against any potential infections. This process may include the following steps:

  • Cleansing the wound of dead skin and foreign particles (debridement)
  • Applying any necessary medications, antibiotics, and wound dressings
  • Helping you keep weight and pressure off the wound as it heals by providing a walking boot, crutches, etc.

You’ll also get careful instructions on how to change your dressings, how to avoid upsetting the healing process, and a schedule for follow-up appointments. Although this may seem like a lot of work, it’s a small price to pay if you want to keep your limb!

Can I Prevent Foot Ulcers from Happening If I Have Diabetes?

Yes! In fact, most ulcers and virtually all serious further complications are preventable if you take the time to develop healthy habits, including:

  • Daily foot inspections
  • Managing your blood sugar through diet and exercise
  • Good foot and nail hygiene
  • Appropriate footwear (including diabetic shoes and orthotics, if necessary)
  • Visiting your podiatrist at least yearly for a routine diabetic foot exam

If you want to learn more about how to protect your feet from diabetic wounds, be sure to check out this blog post from our archive—it’s packed with detailed information!

Is It Time to See the Foot Doctor?

If your daily foot checks have revealed a concerning problem, or it has simply been too long since your last comprehensive diabetic foot exam, please give us a call to schedule your appointment as soon as possible.

Regarding the annual exam, it really is important that you form this habit—even if you have no previous history of foot problems. The unfortunate reality is that diabetes-related nerve and circulatory system damage can happen slowly over many years—slow enough that you don’t realize a problem until your risk for ulceration has increased significantly. Regular exams can help us spot brewing problems long before you can, and then help you counteract them.