Amputation 

Introduction 

Leg amputation: Colin's story

In this video, Colin Edwards talks about why his leg was amputated, and how losing a leg needn't stop you from leading an active life.

Media last reviewed: 20/08/2013

Next review due: 20/08/2015

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An amputation is the surgical removal of part of the body, such as an arm or leg.

In the UK, some of the main reasons why amputations are carried out include:

  • the limb has been affected by gangrene (when a loss of blood supply causes the body’s tissue to die)  often as a result of peripheral arterial disease (PAD)
  • a disease in the limb  such as cancer or a serious infection  poses a significant danger to health
  • serious trauma to the limb – such as a crush or blast wound
  • deformity of the limb or persistent pain that means the limb is of limited functional use

People with diabetes are also at increased risk of amputation. This is because diabetes can lead to nerve damage in the limbs, making the person less aware of any minor injury or wound, particularly those affecting the feet.

People with diabetes are also more prone to develop arterial disease, which means any wound is less likely to heal. However, in most cases, early recognition of the problem and early treatment of the wound can avoid the need for amputation.

Approximately 5-6,000 major limb amputations are carried out in England every year.

Read more about why amputations are carried out.

How amputations are carried out

There are many different types of amputation, depending on the specific limb that needs to be removed and how much of the limb can be saved.

Lower limb amputations  such as the removal of part of a leg, foot or toe  are the most common type of amputation, particularly in older people with PAD or diabetes.

Upper limb amputations  such as the removal or an arm, hand or finger  are less common and tend to be carried out more often in young people, as a result of a serious injury.

Both lower and upper limb amputations are carried out under either general anaesthetic (where you are asleep) or an epidural anaesthetic (where a specific part of your body is numbed using a spinal injection), so you will feel no pain during surgery.

Read more about how amputations are performed.

Prosthetics

After the amputation, it may be possible to fit a prosthetic limb onto the remaining stump.

Prosthetic limbs have become increasingly sophisticated and can reproduce many functions of the hands, arms and legs.

For example, many people who have had the foot and lower section of the leg from beneath the knee removed can walk or ride a bike using a prosthetic limb.

Your surgeon will try to spare as much of the affected limb as possible during surgery. This will ensure that you get as much as you can from a prosthetic limb when it's fitted later.

However, adjusting to life with a prosthetic limb requires an extensive course of physiotherapy and rehabilitation. It also takes a lot more energy to use a prosthetic limb, as your body has to compensate for the missing muscle and bone.

This is why frail people or those with a serious health condition, such as heart disease, may not be suitable for a prosthetic limb.

Read more about recovering after an amputation.

Outlook

The outlook for people with an amputation largely depends on:

  • their age  younger people tend to cope better with the physical demands of adjusting to life with an amputation
  • how much of the limb was removed
  • how well they cope with the emotional and psychological impact of amputation
  • other underlying conditions that may make coping with an amputation more difficult

Many people who have had an amputation reported feeling emotions such as grief and bereavement, similar to experiencing the death of a loved one.

Some people also feel pain in the remaining part of their limb, or "phantom pain" that feels like it's coming from the amputated part of the limb.

However, with long-term support and rehabilitation, many people  particularly young people  are eventually able to return to work, sports and other activities.

Read more about the complications of amputation.

Page last reviewed: 21/07/2014

Next review due: 21/07/2016

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