An amputation is a procedure in which all or part of a limb or digit is surgically removed. Amputation is typically a last resort surgery that is used only after all other treatment methods have failed. Amputations may be required for conditions, such as a traumatic injury, burn, or a cancerous tumor but is most commonly performed because of peripheral arterial disease (PAD) or the hardening of the arteries caused by diabetes, smoking, high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol.

When an existing condition or injury causes poor blood flow to a limb or digit, the cells and tissue in the affected area are not getting the oxygen and nutrients they need to stay healthy. If blood flow is not increased, these cells and tissue will die and become susceptible to infection. If the tissue is greatly damaged and/or infection sets in, especially if it is severe, amputation may be necessary in order to eliminate the damage or infection if it becomes life threatening. For patients over 50, amputation is most often caused by PAD. For patients under 50, a severe injury is the most common cause of amputation.

Preparing for Amputation

When considering amputation, your doctor will first examine you to ensure that it is the only option. Your doctor will look for:

  • Fever
  • Very painful or cool skin in affected area
  • Infection 
Additionally, tests will be administered to determine the extent of blood flow to the affected area. A variety of tests may be used, including blood pressure tests, duplex ultrasound, angiography, computed tomography, and magnetic resonance imaging.

Before performing an amputation, your doctor wants you to be in the best health possible to contribute to the success of the surgery and lessen risks and complications. Existing conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease will be treated to get you in the best condition prior to surgery. Your strength, balance, and coordination will also be judged to prepare for rehabilitation. Additionally, your doctor may recommend you see a counselor prior to your amputation surgery to help you begin to cope with the loss of your limb. As with any surgery, current medications and allergies will be discussed during the examination as well.

At this time, your doctor will often suggest getting measured for your artificial limb. If the measurements are taken now, your artificial limb will be ready by the time your recovery is complete and your wound is sufficiently healed.

The Procedure

Before the surgery, your surgeon will determine the best incision site for your amputation. The surgeon’s ultimate goal is to remove all damaged tissue and retain as much healthy tissue as possible. If any diseased tissue remains, your wound may not heal and adjacent areas may be at risk of infection. To choose an incision site, your surgeon will assess the affected area and look for:

  • Skin that is a healthy color, not reddish 
  • A pulse close to the proposed site 
  • Skin temperature similar to the temperature of a healthy limb 
  • Skin that is still sensitive to the touch
  • Normal blood flow to the proposed site
Following this assessment, you will be prepped in the operating room and your anesthesiologist will use general anesthesia (going to sleep) or will use regional anesthesia to numb the entire amputation site. Machines will also be used to monitor your heart rate, temperature, blood pressure, and brain function.

After your anesthesia takes effect, an incision will be made at the pre-determined incision site and healthy skin will be left to cover your stump following surgery. Along the way, your surgeon will clamp blood vessels to reduce bleeding during the surgery. At the end of the procedure, the blood vessels will be stitched closed and your surgeon will remove the clamps to confirm that all vessels are secure. Your surgeon will also divide the muscles in the area and may even shape them to prepare your stump for an artificial limb.If your amputation is due to a severe injury, crushed bone and tissue will be removed (called debridement) and the bone will be smoothed to ensure a comfortable fit for an artificial limb. Your surgeon will also evaluate the wound and determine whether or not temporary drains should be placed to drain accumulated blood and fluids.

After all damaged tissue is removed, your surgeon will choose to perform an open flap amputation or a closed amputation. If your surgeon determines that an open flap amputation is needed, the skin around the amputation site will be left open for several days so that any infected tissue can be cleaned off. When the wound is clean and free of infection, a delayed closure is performed in which the skin flaps are sewn together to close the wound. If your surgeon is confident that your chance of infection is minimal, he or she will perform a closed amputation in which the skin flaps are sewn closed immediately following the surgery. After the wound is closed, a stocking may be placed over the stump to hold dressings and drainage tubes in place. Additionally, your limb may be placed in a splint or in traction.

Healing After Amputation

After your amputation surgery, your hospital stay can last anywhere from 5 to 14 days. The dressings on your wound will be changed regularly, and your doctor will monitor how well your wound is healing. Existing conditions will continue to be monitored as well. Most likely, your doctor will prescribe pain medications and/or antibiotics to make you more comfortable and help with the healing process. Generally, amputation wounds fully heal in four to eight weeks.

Most often, physical therapy will begin shortly after your surgery. Physical therapy may include stretching, exercises such as getting in and out of a wheelchair, and strengthening your remaining limb. Typically, practice with your artificial limb will begin at least two weeks after your surgery. However, if your doctor approves, practice may start as early as ten days post-surgery.

It is not uncommon to experience emotional grief and/or phantom pain (a sense of feeling pain in your amputated limb) after amputation. A counselor and/or medication can help resolve these feelings.

Risks & Complications

As with all surgeries, complications may occur after an amputation. Treatable complications may include:

  • Severe bruising (hematoma)
  • Necrosis (tissue death of skin flaps covering wound) 
  • Contracture (joint deformity)
  • Infection
  • Poor healing
Your risk of developing complications increases if you have an existing condition, such as heart disease or diabetes. Patients with extremely severe injuries and/or above-the-knee amputations also have a higher risk of complications from surgery.

Continuing Health After Amputation

Generally, amputation surgeries should not cause many lasting health problems. Learning to adapt to your artificial limb, making sure that it is comfortable, and continuing therapy (if needed) are the main concerns following an amputation with no complications. Regular exercise, maintaining your ideal body weight, and refraining from smoking are also crucial for ongoing physical and mental health. If your amputation was caused by an existing condition, such as PAD, be sure to continue treatment with your doctor to reduce your risk for future issues leading to amputations.

Patient Locations

To Make an Appointment Please Call: 203.785.2561

Yale-New Haven Hospital 
20 York Street
New Haven, CT 06510

Yale Physicians Building
800 Howard Avenue, 2nd Floor
New Haven, CT 06519

Yale-New Haven Shoreline Medical Center
111 Goose Lane
Guilford, CT 06437

Yale-New Haven Heart & Vascular Center
2 Devine Street
North Haven, CT 06473

Lawrence & Memorial Hospital
365 Montauk Avenue
New London, CT 06320

Milford Physician Services
234 Broad Street
Milford, CT 06460

Veterans Affairs Medical Center, West Haven
950 Campbell Avenue
West Haven, CT 06516

Shoreline Foot and Ankle Center
85 Poheganut Drive
Groton, CT 06340