Limb amputation is a drastic medical procedure, but can be tremendously useful in saving the lives of patients with serious medical conditions localized in their extremities. Amputation as a medical procedure was first developed to deal with traumatic injuries, and, although reconstructive surgery can accomplish great feats, serious limb trauma still often requires amputation. Tumors or infections that are localized in one or more limbs can sometimes only be treated by amputation. Chronic pain and aesthetic considerations lead to a smaller number of limb amputations.
Modern practices of amputation have their roots in early modern battlefield medicine. Even in less than sanitary conditions, amputation of badly damaged limbs improved a wounded soldier's odds of survival significantly. As medical sanitation improved in the modern era, the survival rate for people who suffered serious localized injury to one or more appendages improved rapidly. Soldiers and paramedics typically employ tourniquets to staunch bleeding at the scene of a battle or accident, allowing a badly damaged limb to be amputated in a more secure medical environment. This variety of limb amputation is occasionally performed in the field, either because a patient would not survive transport, or because a damaged limb is trapped and cannot be freed.
Antibiotics and chemotherapy are highly effective in treating localized cancers and infections, but in some cases infections or tumors cannot be treated. In these instances an affected limb may be amputated as a drastic measure to prevent the spread of infection or cancer to healthy tissues elsewhere in the body. Gangrene stemming from poor circulation is the most common example of this sort of amputation. Patients, especially the elderly and diabetics, may suffer from very poor circulation, leading to tissue death in the extremities, which must be treated with amputation in order to save the life of the patient. Certain very aggressive infections can only effectively be treated by immediate limb amputation.
Cosmetic limb amputation is relatively rare, but does occur. Surplus digits are often non-functional, and patients born with additional fingers or toes often elect to have them surgically removed. In some cases, limbs may be healthy but malformed or damaged as the result of some other medical condition, and amputation for cosmetic reasons may be considered as an option in these circumstances.
Occasionally, limbs or digits may be healthy, but have serious nerve damage. Such nerve damage can sometimes be corrected through surgery. In other cases, however, patients may select limb amputation instead. If chronic pain cannot be treated or managed, amputation may significantly improve a patient’s quality of life.