Over 185,000 people in the United States experience amputation every year, ranging from a severed fingertip to the loss of an entire leg at the hip.
These injuries produce physical disabilities and mental trauma. They also cause pain until your brain rewires itself to account for the missing limb. As a result, amputees often require long-term physical, occupational, and mental health therapy to cope with life after losing a limb.
What Is the Anatomy of Your Limbs?
Your extremities have complex structures to give them strength and movement. Your skeleton sits at the center of your limbs, and its rigid bones provide the limbs with structure. The muscles also pull on the ends of the bones to produce leverage when lifting, jumping, or making other movements.
At your joints, ligaments hold bones to each other. Ligaments are tough bands of connective tissues that restrain and guide joint movement.
Muscles surround your bones. Tendons anchor each of these muscles to a bone. Nerve signals control the muscles, telling them when to contract or relax.
The nerves controlling the muscles trace their way back to the spinal cord and up to the brain. In addition to carrying motor signals, nerves also carry sensory signals from nerve endings in your skin to your brain. These signals offer your brain information about sensations detected by the skin, such as temperature, texture, and pressure.
All these tissues require the circulation of oxygen-rich blood. Cells use oxygen in cell metabolism to produce energy and proteins. Your cells die without oxygen.
Oxygen-rich blood travels through arteries from your heart. As they travel down your limb, these blood vessels separate into narrow branches that ensure your bones and soft tissues receive the blood supply they need. Another network of veins carries oxygen-depleted blood back to your lungs to pick up more oxygen molecules.
What Causes Amputation Injuries?
Most amputations in the U.S. result from diseases. When a disease damages your arteries or veins, the tissue begins to die, and doctors must amputate it. Examples of these diseases include vascular disease and diabetes.
Trauma causes about 32% of amputations in the U.S. These events damage a limb so much that doctors cannot reattach it and prevent the tissues from dying.
Traumatic amputations are more likely to affect your upper limbs. Common causes of upper limb amputations include workplace accidents where your hands or arms get caught in power tools or machines.
Traumatic amputations to the lower limbs often result from crushing injuries. A crushing injury can shatter bones, and the bone fragments can rip into the blood vessels, nerves, and muscles. These injuries can happen in car and motorcycle accidents.
What Types of Amputation Injuries Can Occur?
Amputations take two forms: traumatic and surgical.
Your accident can involve forces so large that they tear or cut your limb from your body. Sometimes, doctors can reattach or replant the severed limb. To do this, they must reconnect the nerves, blood vessels, and musculoskeletal structures.
The chances that doctors can replant a severed limb depend on:
- The damage to the tissues
- The time at which the limb was severed
- Contamination of the limb by debris or hazardous chemicals
Doctors may also need to prioritize saving your life over reconstructing your limb. For example, suppose that a truck accident severed your leg and also caused chest and abdominal trauma. Your doctor may need to focus on your chest and abdomen instead of trying to reattach your leg.
Your accident can damage your tissues so severely that doctors need to remove your limb to save your life. These types of amputations often happen in two contexts.
First, your accident might produce severe bleeding from a major artery. Your doctor may need to close off the artery so you don’t bleed to death. But sealing the artery will also deprive your limb of the blood it needs to survive.
Second, your accident might have mangled your blood vessels so badly that doctors cannot restore circulation. For example, a dog bite could lead to amputation when the dog’s teeth corrupt the blood vessels in a limb beyond repair.
A surgical amputation begins with the surgeon identifying the viable tissue. They want to remove the damage while leaving as much healthy tissue as possible.
Doctors will remove the damaged tissue. As they sever your soft tissues, they will seal the nerves and blood vessels running to the damaged area. When they reach the bone, they will saw through it, then shape the end to remove any sharp edges.
Your doctor will leave enough soft tissue to cover the bone and form a stump. This stump may become the attachment point for a prosthetic device, so the surgeon will shape it to interface with the socket of a prosthesis.
What Is Phantom Limb Syndrome?
Phantom limb occurs when amputees experience sensations that arise seemingly from the amputated body part. These sensations take many forms, including tickling and itching. But the most common sensation is pain. Roughly 80% of all amputees report experiencing phantom sensations.
Phantom pain is a misnomer. The brain experiences real pain sensations traveling from the nerves that were formerly connected to the amputated limb. But the brain uses an outdated assessment of your body to assign those sensations to the missing body part.
Worse yet, the brain sends motor signals back to the area to try to help the painful part. These signals cause the stump to clench or twitch, producing more pain signals. A treatment called mirror therapy can often help the brain remap itself to account for such changes to the body.
In mirror therapy, doctors use a mirror box so that when you look at your missing limb, you see a reflection of your other limb. If you lost your right hand, your therapist would set up a mirror to show a reflection of your left hand.
When you move your left hand and fingers, you presumably see your right hand in the mirror. This exercise helps with the rewiring process and to relieve the phantom sensations.
Contact a Georgia Personal Injury Lawyer for Help Recovering Compensation for an Amputation Injury
Amputation injuries produce lifelong disabilities. As a result, you may need to change jobs or quit working altogether. Amputations also produce significant emotional distress.