What is Gangrene?
Death of the tissues in the body results in a condition known as Gangrene. Tissue death or gangrene occurs when there is loss of blood supply to the tissues. The causes of loss of blood supply are many and include: injury, underlying illness and/or infection. Gangrene commonly affects limbs, fingers and toes; however, gangrene can also develop inside the body damaging the muscles and organs. Gangrene is of different types and all of them need immediate medical attention.
What Causes Gangrene?
We tend to underestimate the role blood plays in our body. Blood is very essential for our health. It transports oxygen and other nutrients throughout our body to the cells and also delivers antibodies, which protect our body from infection. If there is any hindrance in the blood supply and if the blood cannot freely circulate throughout the body, then the cells cannot survive. This results in infection and subsequently death of the tissue due to gangrene. Medical conditions which affect the blood circulation and increase the risk for gangrene are:
- Peripheral arterial disease.
- Serious injury or trauma.
- Weak immune system.
- Raynaud's phenomenon, this is a condition where there is intermittent narrowing of the blood vessels which supply the skin.
What are the Symptoms of Gangrene?
Symptoms depend on the type of Gangrene.
Symptoms of Dry Gangrene are:
The following symptoms can be seen at the site of dry gangrene:
- Numb and cold skin.
- Dry skin, which shrivels up and changes color from blue to black. The skin then eventually sloughs off.
- Patient may or may not experience pain.
Symptoms of Wet Gangrene are:
- Pain and swelling at the site of infection/gangrene.
- Patient has fever and does not feel well.
- The skin color changes from red to brown to black.
- Sores or blisters are present, which discharge bad-smelling pus.
- When the affected area is pressed, a crackling sound can be heard.
Symptoms of Internal Gangrene:
Internal gangrene is painful in the region where there is gangrene. If a person has gangrene of the colon or appendix, then he/she will suffer from severe abdominal pain in the area of the gangrene.
Serious Symptoms of Gangrene:
If the infection from gangrene spreads into the blood, this results in development of sepsis and patient can go into septic shock. This is a serious and life-threatening condition and needs immediate medical attention. Symptoms of sepsis are:
- Rapid heartbeat (tachycardia).
- Low blood pressure (hypotension).
- Shortness of breath (dyspnea).
- Change in body temperature.
- Body pain (myalgia).
- Development of rash.
- Cold, pale and clammy skin.
What Are The Symptoms Which Indicate That Gangrene Is Developing?
Some of the indications of development of gangrene are: fever, persistent and unexplained pain in the body, slow healing wound, changes in skin color. If you notice the above symptoms then immediately seek medical consult.
How is Gangrene Treated?
Treatment for gangrene consists of excising and removing the dead tissue, treating and preventing further spreading of infection. Also treating the underlying condition, which has caused the development of gangrene, is important. The sooner the treatment is started, the better are the chances of recovery. Treatment depends on the type of gangrene and includes:
Surgery: Where the dead tissue is surgically excised or debrided to prevent the spread of infection. Sometimes, amputation, which is the surgical removal of the affected limb, toe or finger, may be needed.
Maggot Therapy: Maggots are used for removing the dead tissue in a non-surgical manner. In the treatment of gangrene, maggots from fly larvae, which are especially bred in a laboratory so that they are sterile, are kept on the gangrene wound and they consume the infected, dead tissue without causing any damage to the healthy tissue. Maggots also help in fighting the infection and boosting the healing process by producing substances which kill bacteria.
Antibiotics: Intravenous antibiotics are commonly given to treat and prevent infections. Oral antibiotics may also be prescribed later.
Oxygen Therapy: In some cases of wet gangrene, hyperbaric oxygen therapy may be used for treatment. In this treatment, the patient is kept in a specially designed chamber which is filled with oxygen that is at a higher pressure than the oxygen which is found outside. It is thought that the high level of oxygen gets absorbed into the blood and promotes healing of the dying tissue. There also may be decrease in the growth of the bacteria with oxygen therapy as they cannot thrive in an oxygen-rich environment.
Is Gangrene a Serious Condition?
Gangrene should not be taken lightly as it is a serious medical condition and requires prompt medical treatment. Many patients suffering from dry gangrene often recover fully with treatment. However, gangrene which is accompanied with infection is a life-threatening condition. The sooner the treatment is started, the better are the chances of recovery.
How to Prevent Gangrene?
For preventing the gangrene from recurring, it is important to determine and resolve the cause of blockage in the blood supply. Many times vascular surgery, such as angioplasty or bypass surgery is needed to restore the blood flow. Some patients may need medications to prevent the formation of blood clots in order to prevent gangrene.