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Diabetic Foot

Home Diabetic Foot

Diabetic Foot

Some people with diabetes develop foot ulcers, due to poor skin circulation and reduced sensation in the feet. Regular examination of the feet and good diabetic control helps to prevent them. A foot ulcer is prone to infection, which may become severe. Ulcers sometimes need treatment with dressings, medication and, when appropriate, surgery.

Are foot ulcers serious?

Although foot ulcers can be serious, they usually respond well to treatment. However, foot ulcers can become worse and can take a long time to heal if you have diabetes, particularly if your circulation is not so good.

In addition, having diabetes means you are more likely to have infections and an infection in the ulcer can occur. Occasionally, more serious problems can develop, such as tissue death (gangrene).

You should also discuss with your specialist the aims of treatment. For example:

What can I do to help prevent foot ulcers?

Have your feet regularly examined

Most people with diabetes are reviewed at least once a year by a doctor and other health professionals. Part of this review is to examine the feet to look for problems such as reduced sensation or poor circulation. If any problems are detected then more frequent feet examinations will usually be recommended.

Treatment of diabetes and other health risk factors

As a rule, the better the control of your diabetes, the less likely you are to develop complications such as foot ulcers. Also, where appropriate, treatment of high blood pressure (hypertension), high cholesterol level and reducing any other risk factors will reduce your risk of diabetic complications. In particular, if you smoke, you are strongly advised to stop smoking.

Foot care

Research has shown that people with diabetes who take good care of their feet and protect their feet from injury, are much less likely to develop foot ulcers.

Good foot care includes:

  • Looking carefully at your feet each day, including between the toes. If you cannot do this yourself, you should ask someone else to do it for you:
  • Looking is particularly important if you have reduced sensation in your feet, as you may not notice anything wrong at first until you look.
  • If you see anything new (such as a cut, bruise, blister, redness or bleeding) and don't know what to do, see your doctor. You can also see a person qualified to diagnose and treat foot disorders (a podiatrist - previously called a chiropodist).
  • Do not try to deal with corns, calluses, verrucas or other foot problems by yourself. They should be treated by a health professional such as a podiatrist. In particular, do not use chemicals or acid plasters to remove corns, etc.
  • Use a moisturising oil or cream for dry skin to prevent cracking. However, you should not apply it between the toes, as this can cause the skin to become too moist which can lead to an infection developing.
  • Look out for athlete's foot (a common minor skin infection). It causes flaky skin and cracks between the toes, which can be sore and can become infected. If you have athlete's foot, it should be treated with an antifungal cream.
  • Cut your nails by following the shape of the end of your toe. But, do not cut down the sides of the nails, or cut them too short, or use anything sharp to clean down the sides of the nails. These things may cause damage or lead the nail to develop an ingrown nail. If you cannot see properly do not try to cut your nails, as you may cut your skin. You should ask someone else to do it.
  • Wash your feet regularly and dry them carefully, especially between the toes.
  • Do not walk barefoot, even at home. You might tread on something and damage your skin.
  • Always wear socks with shoes or other footwear. However, don't wear socks that are too tight around the ankle, as they may affect your circulation.

Shoes, trainers and other footwear should:

  • Fit well to take into account any awkward shapes or deformities (such as bunions).
  • Have broad fronts with plenty of room for the toes.
  • Have low heels to avoid pressure on the toes.
  • Have good laces, buckles or Velcro® fastening to prevent movement and rubbing of feet within the shoes.
  • When you buy shoes, wear the type of socks that you usually wear. Avoid slip-on shoes, shoes with pointed toes, sandals and flip-flops. Break in new shoes gradually.
  • Always feel inside footwear before you put footwear on (to check for stones, rough edges, etc).
  • If your feet are an abnormal shape, or if you have bunions or other foot problems, you may need specially fitted shoes to stop your feet rubbing.

Tips to avoid foot burns include: checking the bath temperature with your hand before stepping in; not using hot water bottles, electric blankets or foot spas; not sitting too close to fires.

What if I develop a foot ulcer?

You should come to us and get examined so that we can give you best advice to recover soon as possible and get your diabetic under control too…come straightaway if you suspect an ulcer has formed. Treatment aims to dress and protect the ulcer, to prevent or treat any infection and also to help your skin to heal.

  • The ulcer is usually covered with a protective dressing.
  • A nurse or podiatrist will normally examine, clean and re-dress the ulcer regularly.
  • A podiatrist may need to remove any hard skin that prevents the ulcer from healing. Also, depending on the site and size of the ulcer, they may protect it from further injury by using padding to take the pressure off the area.
  • You may also be advised to wear special shoes or have a cast made for your foot to keep the pressure off the ulcer.
  • Antibiotics will be advised if the ulcer or nearby tissue becomes infected. You will be offered antibiotics to take by mouth rather than injected into a vein (intravenously), providing you are OK taking them by this route. In severe infections, however, intravenous antibiotics work better. Even then, you may be offered antibiotics by mouth, once the infection has settled down a bit.
  • Seek medical help if your foot infection doesn't improve in a day or two, or becomes significantly worse.
  • Sometimes a small operation is needed to drain pus and clear dead tissue if infection becomes more severe.

In some cases, the arteries in the legs are very narrow and greatly reduce the blood flow to the feet. In these cases an operation to bypass or widen the arteries may be advised.

Many foot ulcers will heal with the above measures. However, they can take a long time to heal. In some cases, the ulcer worsens, becomes badly infected and does not heal. Sometimes infection spreads to nearby bones or joints, which can be difficult to clear, even with a long course of antibiotics. Occasionally, the tissue in parts of the foot cannot survive and the only solution then is to surgically remove (amputate) the affected part.