Frostbite Long-Term Complications

Even when frostbite injuries heal, the damage persists. Cold weather conditions or direct contact with a freezing material, such as an ice pack or metal, causes frostbite. A person generally suffers from hypothermia, or decreased core body temperature, along with frostbite. Immediate symptoms of frostbite include numbness, loss of sensation, red or white colored skin. Additional complications occur months later and are often irreversible. According to the National Institutes of Health, the location of 90 percent of frostbite injuries are the hands and feet 3.

Neuropathic Symptoms

According to the Merck Manual, all degrees of frostbite can create long-term neuropathic effects, or nerve damage 1. A person may lose sensation to the affected body part and experience increased sensitivity to cool and hot temperatures, reports 2. The nerve damage and numbness are often permanent. Extreme pain may be associated with the injured area. The National Health Care for the Homeless Council reports narcotics are required for initial pain control, but patients may be able to take neuropathic pain medications such as gabapentin for long-term use.

Gangrene and Amputation

As a person’s core temperature decreases, the body automatically reduces blood circulation from the extremities so vital organs receive proper oxygenation. The decreased blood flow causes tissue death and decay, known as gangrene, reports 2. Identification of gangrene takes several days after the initial frostbite injury. The skin tissue eventually hardens and turns black. The amount of decaying tissue depends on the depth of the frostbite as well as length of exposure to cold temperatures. Removal of the dead tissue is required for proper healing, or infection sets in. advises debridement of dead tissue may not happen until one to three months after the injury; waiting aids in identifying healthy and dead tissue 2. In severe cases, removal of large sections of skin or body parts is required.

Complex Regional Pain Syndrome

The Merck Manual reports patients experience symptoms similar to complex regional pain syndrome 14. Symptoms of the condition include increased sweating, burning or aching pain and limited range of motion. The exact cause remains unknown, but CRPS often appears after an injury. The presence of pain is often associated with emotional stress or environmental changes, according to the Merck Manual 1. CRPS type 2 is often associated with peripheral nerve damage. Treatment is most effective when started early and includes medications, physical therapy and acupuncture.