Gangrene is the death of tissues in the body. Clostridial Myonecrosis is one type of gas gangrene caused by the infection of Clostridium bacteria. It is often life threatening when treatment is delayed. The bacteria releases toxins into the skin cells, tissues and blood vessels that result in the death of the tissues and along with it, gas is released. Hence the name Gas Gangrene. The infection can occur at any place in the body but most often it is found on the arms and legs. The infection spreads real fast and can become life threatening in as little as 48 hours after the first symptoms show up. As a last resort, amputation of limb(s) may be done to save the rest of the body from infection.
Symptoms of gas gangrene
- Air/Gas under the skin in the infected area
- Inflammation in the affected area (pain, swelling, redness/ dark purple colouration of the skin)
- Increased heart rate
- Formation of blisters with bad smelling discharge
- Yellow skin and eyes – shows up in the final stages of life of the person.
Gas gangrene is a very serious condition. You must see your doctor immediately after you notice foul smell from the infected area.
Causes of gas gangrene
The infection is caused by bacteria (Clostridium Perfringens or Streptococcus). When a surgical area or an injury is left open, the area will be an ideal host for several microbes including those that cause gas gangrene. In some rare cases, the infection is caused with no known reason.
When the injury of a person is very deep into the muscle or if the tissues are severely damaged or when injury/wound is covered with dirt (at work or home), that can result in infecting the area.
People with following conditions are at higher risk of developing gas gangrene:
- Diabetes (injuries/wounds take a long time to heal)
- People suffering from cardiovascular problems
- Colon cancer
- Open cuts/wounds/fractures
- Usage of unsterilized needles to inject medicine/drugs into muscles.
Diagnosis of gas gangrene
Starting with a physical examination, your doctor will ask for some tests to be done including:
- Skin culture to identify the bacteria present in the affected area
- Blood tests to see increase in white blood cell count (usually indicating infection(s) in the body)
- Imaging tests such as X-rays or MRIs to see the tissues affected
Treatment of gas gangrene
If you see an experienced doctor, he/she will start the treatment with antibiotics well before the lab test reports arrive. As said, gas gangrene is a life threatening condition, so every minute will be precious. Antibiotics are usually administered intravenously. The dead and infected tissue needs to be cleared up and removed to prevent infection from spreading.
The damaged blood vessels may be repaired to help blood flow to the affected area. Damaged tissues may also be reconstructed with skin grafting procedure. Skin grafting is the process of taking skin from a healthy area on the body and replacing the damaged skin with it. In severe cases, amputation may be the only option to arrest the spread of infection. Once the amputation wound is healed, prosthetic limb may be given by the doctor.
Treating gas gangrene with hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT)
When a person is suffering from gas gangrene, the tissues, blood vessels and the skin is damaged, the skin turns pale initially and then to purple or dark red and then it does off. As a result of lesser blood flow, the body will have very low chances of fighting the infection even though it knows that there is an infection in the body.
As a part of treatment of gas gangrene, the patient will be subject to a 90 minute session in HBOT chamber and this may be done multiple times in a day. In a hyperbaric chamber, nearly 100% oxygen is present. Breathing pure oxygen will fill up the blood with excess oxygen and this helps in reconstruction of blood vessels of the body and also supplies enough oxygen to the dying tissues and skin. This delays the damage caused by the infection and in the mean time if antibiotics are administered, the infection can be cleared without causing much damage to the body. Amputation may be off the list of treatment options with the use of HBOT. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a life saver for many who are suffering from diabetes or other cardiovascular problems.