Diabetes can lead to complications in wound healing, which affects approximately 25% of people with the condition. If you have diabetes, you may notice that even minor cuts or injuries take much longer to heal. Improper wound healing can result in pain and lead to more severe health problems, such as foot ulcers.

Infections can become so severe that they require advanced treatments, and in extreme cases, they may lead to amputations. This creates a cycle of worry for those with diabetes, as even minor injuries can turn into significant health concerns.

In this article, you will learn about how diabetes affects wound healing. You will understand why diabetic wounds heal slowly and discover effective ways to manage and improve wound healing if you have diabetes and the latest treatments that can help speed up recovery.

Key Takeaways

  • Diabetes negatively impacts wound healing due to high blood sugar levels, weakening white blood cells, and slowing blood circulation. This impairs the body’s ability to fight infections and delays the delivery of essential nutrients necessary for wound repair.
  • Diabetics frequently suffer from specific types of wounds, including diabetic foot ulcers and infections from minor cuts or abrasions. These wounds are prone to severe complications, such as infections that can lead to amputations if not properly managed.
  • Diabetes causes various physiological changes that further complicate wound healing. These include reduced immune system efficiency, impaired blood flow due to atherosclerosis, and neuropathy which can lead to unnoticed injuries.
  • Treatment strategies for diabetic wounds include standard care like wound debridement and infection control and advanced therapies such as hyperbaric oxygen therapy, negative pressure wound therapy, and growth factor therapies. Each treatment targets different aspects of the impaired healing process in diabetic patients.
  • Effective blood sugar management and thorough foot care prevent wounds and promote faster healing. Wearing appropriate footwear and avoiding barefoot walking is also crucial to protect against injuries that can lead to serious complications.

How Does Diabetes Affect Wound Healing?

When someone has diabetes, their body struggles to use insulin effectively, which is crucial for managing blood sugar levels. High blood sugar can weaken white blood cells, essential for fighting infections and helping wounds heal. It can also slow down blood circulation, making it difficult for essential nutrients to reach and repair the wound. People with either type 1 or type 2 diabetes are at an increased risk of developing a bacterial infection in the wound.

Diabetic patients often experience several common types of wounds, primarily appearing on their feet and legs. One frequent type is the diabetic foot ulcer, an open sore that develops mainly on the bottom of the foot. These ulcers can become quite severe if not treated properly and are a leading cause of hospital visits among patients with diabetes.

Another type of wound common in diabetic individuals is infections that occur from seemingly minor cuts or abrasions, which can escalate quickly due to impaired healing abilities. Blisters and calluses also pose risks; though typically minor in non-diabetic people, they can lead to significant issues if not managed carefully in those with diabetes.

Research has shown that up to 25-90% of all amputations in certain studies are related to complications from diabetes, highlighting the severe impact of poor wound healing. Additionally, around 15-25% of people with diabetes may develop painful foot ulcers, which can lead to serious issues like amputation if not managed carefully.

Poor wound healing can also result in other complications, including heart disease, kidney disease, and eye problems. If left untreated, an infected wound can spread locally to muscle and bone, which doctors refer to as osteomyelitis.

In addition, if an infection in the wound goes untreated, it may progress to gangrene, which is a common cause of amputations in people who lose limbs due to diabetes. In some cases, untreated infections can escalate to sepsis, a life-threatening condition occurring when an infection enters the bloodstream.

Did you know

Nearly 50% of major leg amputations in the US are caused by diabetes, resulting in almost 100,000 procedures annually.

Why Do Diabetic Wounds Heal So Slowly?

Diabetic wounds typically heal slowly due to physiological and biochemical factors linked to the effects of diabetes on the body. Below are some reasons from studies that help explain the slow healing process:

  • Prolonged Hyperglycemia: Chronic high blood sugar levels characteristic of diabetes lead to various tissue and cellular damage mechanisms. Hyperglycemia impairs the function of red blood cells, reduces oxygen transport to tissues, and inhibits the function of neutrophils, which are crucial for infection defense. It also leads to the formation of advanced glycation end products (AGEs) that can damage proteins in the wound matrix.
  • Impaired Blood Flow: Diabetes often leads to atherosclerosis—narrowing and hardening of arteries—which impairs blood flow. Reduced blood flow decreases the oxygen and nutrient supply necessary for wound healing. Peripheral artery disease, prevalent in diabetic individuals, further exacerbates this issue.
  • Neuropathy: Diabetic neuropathy, or nerve damage, affects sensory, motor, and autonomic nerves. Sensory neuropathy can lead to unperceived injuries due to loss of sensation, while motor neuropathy can cause muscle weakness, contributing to abnormal foot pressures that may lead to ulcers. Autonomic neuropathy can alter sweat and oil production, making dry, cracked skin prone to injury.
  • Immune System Dysfunction: Diabetes impacts immune system efficiency, leading to slower and less effective responses to infections. Diabetic wounds often show excessive inflammation, prolonged presence of inflammatory markers like neutrophils and macrophages, and delayed transition to the proliferation phase of wound healing.
  • Microbial Infections: The high glucose levels in tissues make diabetic wounds more susceptible to infections. These infections are often severe due to the impaired immune response and can become chronic, complicating the healing process.

What Treatments Are Available?

Diabetic Wound Treatments

Future treatment strategies may include stimuli-responsive and multifunctional treatment options designed to accelerate diabetic wound healing by targeting the various factors contributing to impaired healing. Several treatments are available for diabetic wounds, which can be categorized into standard-of-care therapies and advanced therapies.

Standard Care Treatments

The standard care treatments for diabetic wounds, particularly diabetic foot ulcers, focus on managing the wound environment to promote healing and prevent complications. The main components of standard care include wound debridement, offloading, and glycemic and infection control. Here’s a detailed look at these treatment approaches:

  • Wound Debridement: Debridement is crucial as it helps remove non-viable tissue, reduces bacterial burden (including biofilm), and increases the immune system’s effectiveness. This procedure is fundamental to the standard care for diabetic foot ulcers. Debridement has been shown to interact synergistically with other treatments, promoting quicker healing times. In a study involving sharp debridement combined with other therapies, such as negative pressure wound therapy (NPWT), the mean wound healing time was reported to be about 3.5 ± 1.8 weeks.
  • Offloading: Offloading reduces foot pressure, which is critical for patients with neuropathy as elevated plantar pressures lead to ulcer development. Effective offloading techniques include casts and non-removable walkers, which are highly effective in reducing plantar pressures and aiding in wound healing. Various studies have highlighted the importance of appropriate footwear, including features like metatarsal additions and arch profiles to distribute foot pressure more evenly.  Surgical offloading methods, such as Achilles’ tendon release and foot reconstruction, have also been shown to optimize long-term outcomes. Compared to non-surgical treatments, the most reliable and best-studied offloading methods have improved healing and significantly reduced amputation rates.
  • Infection Control and Wound Cleansing: Regular wound cleansing with solutions like propyl betaine-polihexanide and polyhexamethylene biguanide is standard to manage infections and maintain a healthy wound environment.

Advanced Therapies

Diabetic wounds can be challenging to treat, and standard care methods like wound debridement and infection control may not always be sufficient. Advanced therapies involving cutting-edge techniques and technologies have been developed to improve healing. Here’s a detailed overview of these advanced therapies:

  • Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT): HBOT involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurized environment, which can enhance the oxygen supply to the wound, promoting faster healing. Although studies have shown variable success rates, HBOT is recognized for increasing oxygenation and aiding the healing process in diabetic foot ulcers (DFUs).
  • Negative Pressure Wound Therapy (NPWT): NPWT uses a vacuum to promote wound healing by reducing edema and promoting perfusion and granulation tissue formation. Research on its efficacy in improving wound closure compared to standard moist wound care presents mixed results. Some studies indicate significant benefits regarding reduced leukocyte count and pain, while others found no significant difference in wound closure rates.
  • Growth Factor Therapies: These therapies involve applying growth factors directly to the wound to stimulate healing. Although promising in vitro and animal models, most growth factor therapies have not demonstrated significant efficacy in accelerating wound closure in clinical settings, except for a few like platelet-derived growth factor, which has been somewhat successful in treating DFUs.
  • Stem Cell and Cell-Based Products:  These therapies have shown potential in enhancing angiogenesis and promoting wound healing. Clinical trials are ongoing, but initial results suggest that these therapies can improve healing by modulating the inflammatory response and enhancing tissue regeneration.
  • Platelet-Rich Plasma (PRP): PRP involves using the patient’s blood, processed to be rich in growth factors, and reapplying it to the wound to stimulate healing. Although results vary, some studies show that PRP can enhance healing in diabetic ulcers.

What Preventative Measures Can a Diabetic Take to Protect Their Skin?

Diabetic Wound Prevention

People with diabetes can take specific measures to decrease the time a wound takes to heal. These measures include managing blood sugar levels, practicing thorough foot care, and addressing wounds as they arise. The following are preventative measures that people with diabetes can take to protect their skin:

  • Maintain strict control over blood sugar levels to minimize the risk of slow-healing wounds and complications.
  • Practice thorough foot care, including daily washing, drying, moisturizing, and inspecting for abnormalities.
  • Avoid walking barefoot to prevent injuries and infections.
  • Trim toenails carefully to prevent ingrown nails and potential wounds.
  • Wear comfortable and properly fitting shoes to prevent foot injuries and blisters.
  • Seek immediate medical attention for wounds that do not heal promptly or show signs of infection.

Final Thoughts

Managing diabetic wounds effectively is crucial due to the complexities introduced by diabetes, such as slower healing rates and increased risk of infection. Understanding how diabetes affects wound healing can guide better care practices and treatment options. From the importance of maintaining blood sugar levels to employing advanced therapies like hyperbaric oxygen therapy and innovative wound dressings, the approach to diabetic wound care is multi-faceted.

Implementing preventative measures, such as thorough foot care and prompt medical attention, is essential for preventing severe complications like amputations. With the right knowledge and resources, individuals with diabetes can manage their wound care more effectively and improve their quality of life.

FAQs About Diabetes Wounds

How long does it typically take for a diabetic wound to heal?

Diabetic wounds often require considerable time to heal. According to a study of 105 individuals with diabetic foot ulcers, the median duration from initiating medical treatment to complete healing was 75.5 days, excluding wounds that did not heal. Nonetheless, research suggests that certain medications may significantly reduce this healing time.

What does a diabetic foot ulcer look like?

A diabetic foot ulcer presents as an uncovered wound, often circular in shape. In cases where gangrene develops, the tissue may take on a black appearance. Interestingly, individuals usually do not feel pain, which can contribute to delays in diagnosis.

What is the best medicine for diabetic wounds?

Effective options include cephalexin, dicloxacillin, amoxicillin-clavulanate, or clindamycin. In cases where methicillin-resistant S aureus (MRSA) infection is suspected, clindamycin, trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole, minocycline, or linezolid may be prescribed.

What is the best home remedy for diabetic wounds?

A blend of tea tree oil and coconut oil, applied as a dressing for diabetic foot ulcers, can promote healing. Allowing the wound to remain exposed after applying this mixture can also expedite healing.

How do I know if my diabetic wound is infected?

Signs of local infection include redness, warmth, swelling, pain or tenderness, and pus. Persistent non-healing despite appropriate treatment, foul-smelling discharge, and necrotic or fragile tissue may also indicate infection.

How can a diabetic wound heal faster?

Here are some tips that can help a diabetic wound heal faster:

  1. Wash your hands with soap and water before you start cleaning the wound.
  2. Rinse the wound with warm water to remove any dirt or debris.
  3. Apply gentle pressure to stop any bleeding.
  4. Apply an antibiotic cream to the wound and cover it with a sterile bandage.

Can aloe vera heal diabetic wounds?

Research shows that aloe vera gel can speed up wound healing in people with diabetes. It helps with different stages of the healing process, making the wound close faster.

Is hydrogen peroxide good for diabetic wounds?

It’s best not to use hydrogen peroxide, alcohol, iodine, or soap to clean diabetic wounds. These can irritate the skin and may slow down healing rather than help.

Sources

National Center for Biotechnology Information. (n.d.). Diabetic Wound-Healing Science. PubMed Central. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8539411/

Smith-Strøm, H., Rokne, B., Iversen, M. M., Igland, J., Østbye, T., Graue, M., Skeie, S., Wu, B., & Sambhara, S. (2017). Severity and duration of diabetic foot ulcer (DFU) before seeking care as predictors of healing time: A retrospective cohort study. PLoS One, 12(5), e0177176.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5428931/

Spampinato, S. F., Caruso, G. I., De Pasquale, R., Sortino, M. A., & Merlo, S. (n.d.). The Treatment of Impaired Wound Healing in Diabetes: Looking among Old Drugs. Pharmaceuticals (Basel). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7243111/

Burgess, J. L., Wyant, W. A., Abujamra, B. A., Kirsner, R. S., & Jozic, I. (2021). Diabetic Wound-Healing Science. Medicina (Kaunas), 57(10), 1072.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8432997/

Dasari, N., Jiang, A., Skochdopole, A., Chung, J., Reece, E. M., Vorstenbosch, J., & Winocour, S. (2021). Healing, inflammation, and fibrosis: Updates in diabetic wound healing, inflammation, and scarring. Seminars in Plastic Surgery, 35(3), 153–158.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8432997/