What is the role of surgery in the treatment of frostbite?

Updated: Oct 13, 2020
  • Author: Bobak Zonnoor , MD; Chief Editor: Dirk M Elston, MD  more...
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It may take weeks to months for frostbitten tissue to be declared viable. The affected area generally heals or mummifies without surgery. Lower-extremity involvement, infection, and delay in seeking medical attention are associated with an increased likelihood that operative therapy will be necessary.

Early surgery usually is contraindicated in frostbite, because of the time the nonviable tissue takes to demarcate. Older series show that performing debridement earlier than 2-3 weeks after warming significantly increases the amount of viable tissue removed and is harmful to the patient, resulting in increased amputation rate, mortality, and morbidity. The only indication for early surgical intervention is postthaw compartment syndrome warranting fasciotomy.

Whereas some advocate an aggressive approach, with bone and tissue scanning employed to identify nonviable tissue at 10 days, this is not considered routine or standard of care. Caregivers are cautioned to wait for demarcation of clearly necrotic tissue before surgical intervention. This usually takes about 3-4 weeks but may take longer. Commonly accepted indications for surgical debridement at 3-4 weeks include gangrene and clearly necrotic or nonfunctional tissue.

Wet gangrene is treated by urgent surgical excision of the affected area.

Standard surgical techniques are used for excision and debridement after tissue demarcation. Amputation skin grafting and bone and tissue coverage, potentially with muscle flaps, may be considered. [57]

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