Military Dermatology

The Dermatologist’s Role in Amputee Skin Care

In Partnership With the Association of Military Dermatologists

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Amputees face many challenges associated with residual limbs. Overall, amputees have an increased risk for skin disease occurring at residual limb sites. Although prosthetists and primary care physicians often accomplish routine care, the dermatologist plays a very important role within the multidisciplinary team. Many military dermatologists have unique clinical experience treating amputees, as a portion of their practice consists of providing care to soldiers with traumatic amputations from complex and dramatic blast injuries. Although current therapies and preventative treatments are for the most part successful, future research involving advanced technology is promising.

Practice Points

  • Amputees have an increased risk for skin disease occurring on residual limbs.
  • It is important to educate patients about proper hygiene techniques for residual limbs and prostheses as well as common signs and symptoms of skin disease at the amputation site.
  • Amputees should see a dermatologist within the first year after amputation and often benefit from annual follow-up examinations.
  • Early referral to a dermatologist for skin disease affecting residual limbs is warranted.


 

References

Limb amputation is a major life-changing event that markedly affects a patient’s quality of life as well as his/her ability to participate in activities of daily living. The most prevalent causes for amputation include vascular diseases, diabetes mellitus, trauma, and cancer, respectively.1,2 For amputees, maintaining prosthetic use is a major physical and psychological undertaking that benefits from a multidisciplinary team approach. Although individuals with lower limb amputations are disproportionately impacted by skin disease due to the increased mechanical forces exerted over the lower limbs, patients with upper limb amputations also develop dermatologic conditions secondary to wearing prostheses.

Approximately 185,000 amputations occur each year in the United States.3 Although amputations resulting from peripheral vascular disease or diabetes mellitus tend to occur in older individuals, amputations in younger patients usually occur from trauma.2 The US military has experienced increasing numbers of amputations from trauma due to the ongoing combat operations in the Middle East. Although improvements in body armor and tactical combat casualty care have reduced the number of preventable deaths, the number of casualties surviving with extremity injuries requiring amputation has increased.4,5 As of October 2017, 1705 US servicemembers underwent major limb amputations, with 1914 lower limb amputations and 302 upper limb amputations. These amputations mainly impacted men aged 21 to 29 years, but female servicemembers also were affected, and a small group of servicemembers had multiple amputations.6

One of the most common medical problems that amputees face during long-term care is skin disease, with approximately 75% of amputees using a lower limb prosthesis experiencing skin problems. In general, amputees experience nearly 65% more dermatologic concerns than the general population.7 In one study of 97 individuals with transfemoral amputations, some of the most common issues associated with socket prosthetics included heat and sweating in the prosthetic socket (72%) as well as sores and skin irritation from the socket (62%).8 Given the high incidence of skin disease on residual limbs, dermatologists are uniquely positioned to keep the amputee in his/her prosthesis and prevent prosthetic abandonment.

Complications Following Amputation

Although US military servicemembers who undergo amputations receive the very best prosthetic devices and rehabilitation resources, they still experience prosthesis abandonment.9 Despite the fact that prosthetic limbs and prosthesis technology have substantially improved over the last 2 decades, one study indicated that the high frequency of problems affecting tissue viability at residual limbs is due to the age-old problem of prosthetic fit.10 In patients with the most advanced prostheses, poor fit still results in mechanical damage to the skin, as the residual limb is exposed to unequal and shearing forces across the amputation site as well as high pressures that cause a vaso-occlusive effect.11,12 Issues with poor fit are especially important for more active patients, as they normally want to immediately return to their vigorous preinjury lifestyles. In these patients, even a properly fitting prosthetic may not be able to overcome the fact that the residual limb skin is not well suited for the mechanical forces generated by the prosthesis and the humid environment of the socket.1,13 Another complicating factor is the dynamic nature of the residual limb. Muscle atrophy, changes in gait, and weight gain or loss can lead to an ill-fitting prosthetic and subsequent skin breakdown.

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