October 12, 2022
Eddie Zepeda

What Causes Amputation? Causes, Symptoms, and Risk Factors of Limb Loss

Athletic Prosthetics

Amputation isn’t something that anyone expects during his or her lifetime. Over half of all amputations result from vascular conditions such as peripheral artery disease (PAD) and diabetes. These conditions can impair the blood flow in your limbs which eventually results in the need for amputation.

The more you understand these conditions and diseases that could result in an amputation, the better equipped you are to notice the warning signs and symptoms. Even if you need an amputation, rest assured that finding comprehensive care for patients who are missing limbs is completely possible.

What Is an Amputation?

Amputation is a surgery that removes all or a portion of a limb or extremity (outer limbs). Here are some common types of amputation or limb loss:

  • Arm amputation
  • Hand amputation
  • Below-knee amputation, removing the lower leg, foot, and toes
  • Above-knee amputation, removing part of the thigh, knee, shin, foot, and toes
  • Finger amputation
  • Foot amputation
  • Toe amputation.

Causes of Amputation

There are many causes of limb loss and reasons for amputation. The most common causes of amputation include disease, accidents, and congenital limb differences. In terms of statistics, the most common limb loss consists of a portion of the foot and leg, either below the knee (transtibial) or above the knee (transfemoral). 

Lower Limb Loss Resulting from Disease

Unfortunately, there are infections that cause amputation of which you should be aware. We’ve outlined various diseases where you can lose limbs below. 

  • Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD): PAD is the most common reason that a limb amputation is required. Also known as poor circulation, peripheral arterial disease hardens the arteries, thus restricting blood flow and putting you at risk for complications. When blood flow isn’t adequate, the cells within the limb don’t get oxygen from the bloodstream, resulting in tissue beginning to die. 
  • Diabetes: Another disease that causes a loss of limbs is diabetes. Diabetes causes amputation because just like PAD, it can impact your blood flow. In fact, roughly 54% of all surgical amputations stem from vascular disease complications. Diabetic patients could feel cramping in the legs in addition to pain in the thighs, calves, or buttocks. In some cases, diabetics can also have a hard time noticing the signs of poor circulation. 
  • Cancer: Although it is less common, some forms of cancer can also result in lower limb loss. The removal of a hand, foot, arm, or leg to prevent the spread of cancer makes up less than 2% of amputations. Sarcomas can impact the bone and soft tissue in the limbs; if the cancer is too aggressive or large to be removed, or if it is recurring or extends to the nerves and blood vessels, amputation could be necessary. 
  • Severe infection: Severe sepsis is referred to as blood poisoning and septicemia. It occurs when a drug-resistant bacteria spread via the bloodstream and causes tissues to die. Meningococcal bacteria is one cause of this.
  • COVID-19: Some people have reported a loss of limbs due to Covid. Specifically, the virus is associated with acute limb ischemia which is a sudden decrease in blood flow to a limb. 

Accidents that Cause Limb Loss

Another reason for limb loss is due to a traumatic accident. This could be in the workplace, in a motor vehicle, during a sporting event, or in a military event. The lack of proper training is the most common reason for limb loss although it could also result from unguarded machinery. Regarding limb loss in the workplace, the majority of these accidents can be prevented with the right procedures in place.

When an amputation occurs due to a motor vehicle or sports accident, there isn’t usually time to process the fact that a limb loss will occur. In many scenarios, amputating the limb is a life-saving measure that must be made quickly. There are times when a friend or family member will have to make the decision on behalf of the individual who has been injured as they are unable to decide for themselves.

In situations where an accident causes limb loss, both psychological and emotional rehabilitation are equally as important as physical rehabilitation. These events are often intense and can cause long-term emotional trauma if not addressed properly. 

Limb Loss Due to Congenital Limb Difference

Congenital limb difference results from an arm or leg not forming normally inside a woman’s uterus. This defect impacts roughly 8 births out of every 10,000. This can impact one or multiple limbs and it can occur in both the upper and lower limbs. Congenital limb loss is more common in the upper limbs.

The underlying cause for congenital limb difference is mostly unknown, however, some factors increase the risk of it occurring such as gene problems, the mother being exposed to a virus, certain medications, or a large amount of chemicals. 

Once the child is born, the medical team works to establish a sense of independence and create a plan to support the child and the family to find success in their day-to-day lives. Rehabilitation therapy is common in addition to surgery or the use of a prosthetic device. In this situation, it’s crucial that you find a medical team you can trust. 

Signs and Symptoms that Can Lead to Amputation

It’s important that you are aware of potential red flags and warning signs that could potentially result in amputation. Treating the below in a timely manner could be the difference in whether or not you need amputation:

  • Numbness or pain in the foot or leg
  • Slow or non-healing wounds or sores
  • Gangrene
  • Shiny, dry, and smooth skin on the foot or leg
  • Toenails or nails that are thickening
  • An absent or weakened pulse in the leg
  • An ongoing infection that won’t heal

Risk Factors for Amputation

Knowing the amputation risk factors can help you pinpoint if or when you need to take action. If you have conditions that stem from diabetes or another untreated PAD such as a foot ulcer that isn’t healing, you could be at a greater risk for amputation. If the impacted limb has a deep ulcer or swelling that is noticeable around the ulcer in the area between your foot or ankle, make sure to seek treatment right away. You could also notice an unpleasant discharge and odor coming from the infected foot ulcer in addition to spiking a fever.

It’s possible to determine if you’re at high risk for limb loss simply by looking at your hands, feet, legs, ankles, etc. Limbs that are impacted typically have a change in skin color which is a sign of gangrene; this could indicate that an amputation is necessary. 

While it can be obvious when you should seek medical attention for potential limb loss, the signs and symptoms aren’t always noticeable. They could begin slowly and develop over time, making it hard to understand just how severe your symptoms are. For example, the presence of diseases such as arthritis, plantar fasciitis, and gout can make it challenging to pinpoint signs that could ultimately lead to amputation. 

We’ve outlined several risk factors for amputation below:

  • Age
  • Weight
  • Visual acquittal
  • Renal function
  • Trauma
  • Vascular Insufficiency
  • Peripheral neuropathy
  • Gender
  • Ethnicity
  • History of prior foot ulcer or amputation

With such a serious topic, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. When in doubt, seek medical attention for any signs or symptoms that you fear could lead to amputation. 

Why an Amputation Can Be Vital

By getting an amputation, you stop the infection from reaching other parts of your limb or your body. Amputations are also helpful in controlling pain if there are no other options. Many people opt for a prosthetic limb following surgery. Modern prosthetics are both highly functional and lightweight, allowing you to live an active and healthy lifestyle following limb loss. 

Recovery from Amputation

If you or a loved one has recently undergone an amputation, it’s important to be aware of the recovery process. Of course, everyone has a unique recovery process depending on the type of procedure that took place and the type of anesthesia that was used. 

Other factors for recovery time include:

  • The limb that was amputated
  • How complex your surgery was
  • Whether you’re using a prosthetic limb

While in the hospital, the staff will continue to change the dressings on the wound and teach the patient and his or her family how to do so as well. Under the care of a doctor, he or she will be able to monitor how the wound is healing and make sure there aren’t additional conditions that impact the process such as arteries that are hardening or diabetes. Medications are prescribed as necessary to keep pain and infection under control. 

Generally speaking, you will begin to start using a prosthetic limb roughly two months following your surgery. There are custom-designed arm prosthetic devices in addition to different lower limb prosthetics.

Be patient with yourself as the learning process can take anywhere from 2-6 months. As you begin to feel more confident and active without using your prosthetic device, remember that learning to function without your natural limb is a slow process. Lean on the support from your healthcare provider to address any issues that arise. Your friends and family are another great support system on which you can rely.


Amputation might be required due to an infection, disease, or severe injury. Following surgery, it will take time to adjust, but with the right tools and support system, you can continue to live a happy and fulfilled life. If you’re looking to learn more about custom prosthesis, our team at Prime Care Orthotics & Prosthetics is here to assist you. Contact us today at 575-237-8506 to learn more.


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