Workers can suffer the loss of a limb or body part for many reasons. They may be injured in a vehicle accident or a fall. Often, workers lose a limb due to being crushed or pinned by workplace machinery or equipment. Our office has represented a number of clients who are amputees, and obtained settlements for them for their workers compensation cases. We recently posted another article which discussed the workers compensation benefits that an injured worker who suffers an amputation may be entitled to.
Here, we will focus more on the medical aspects of amputations. The recovery process often includes the need for a surgical amputation or re-work of an already-amputated limb. In the best cases, the worker can be fitted for a prosthetic device. Most workers who lose a limb or appendage need to treat with multiple doctors. Some workers are able to return to work. Many workers are disabled due to the workplace accident – and they can never work again.
What is an amputation?
According to John Hopkins Medicine, an amputation is a condition that results in the loss of a limb – usually due to injury or disease. When amputations are due to trauma, in 70% of the cases, the upper limbs are the body parts that are lost. According to the National Limb Loss Information Center, about 185,000 amputation surgeries are performed each year.
Rehabilitation after amputation
A loss of an arm, leg, foot, hand, or other body part often affects the worker’ self-esteem, his/her ability to provide self-care, the ability to move, and the loss or decrease of other functions. Generally, amputees require extensive rehabilitation. The success and length of the rehab depends on:
- The level and type of amputation
- The type and degree of any resulting impairments and disabilities
- Overall health of the patient
- Family support
Each worker’s and each amputee’s rehabilitation is different. The main goal is to help the worker gain as much function and independence as follows, “while improving the overall quality of life — physically, emotionally, and socially.”
Rehabilitation includes some or all of the following:
- “Treatments to help improve wound healing and stump care
- Activities to help improve motor skills, restore activities of daily living (ADLs), and help the patient reach maximum independence
- Exercises that promote muscle strength, endurance, and control
- Fitting and use of artificial limbs (prostheses)
- Pain management for both postoperative and phantom pain (a sensation of pain that occurs below the level of the amputation)
- Emotional support to help during the grieving period and with readjustment to a new body image
- Use of assistive devices
- Nutritional counseling to promote healing and health
- Vocational counseling
- Adapting the home environment for ease of function, safety, accessibility, and mobility
- Patient and family education”
The amputation rehabilitation team
Workers who lose the loss of a limb often need to treat with some or all of the following doctors, health providers, and counselors. Some patients require treatment for months or years. Many workers require some type of lifelong assistance. The types of care required depends on how acute the amputation is and the availability of out-patient services.
- Orthopedists/orthopedic surgeons. Orthopedic doctors who are experienced limb salvage doctors work to save as much of the limb as possible, to reconstruct the limb where possible, to prepare the limb for prosthetic use, to clean the wound, and to help leave the wound looking as best as possible.
- Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Doctors. These are physicians who typically specialize in working with patients who have suffered catastrophic injuries such as limb loss, and getting those patients back to maximum function.
- Prosthetics and orthotists. According to the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) in New York, these are certified professionals who help build the best device possible so you can achieve maximum mobility and function. Amputees are fitted before the devices are prepared.
- Psychologist/psychiatrists help workers adjust to the emotional and self-esteem problems that often accompany the loss of one or more limbs. They provide individual counseling and/or psychiatric medication.
- Physical therapists help build strength and help improve your function and mobility so you can be as independent as possible.
- HSS Motion Analysis Lab: According to HHS, these “specialists and scientists perform gait analysis for diagnostic purposes, evaluation of outcomes, and clinical and translational research.”
- Patient counselors: HSS defines these counselors as “individuals who are high-level, functioning amputees with personal experience and perspective providing support and advice, as well as running group programs and amputee walking schools
Other doctors and rehabilitation team staff include the following health providers and professionals:
- Occupational therapists
- Social workers
- Recreational therapists
- Vocational counselors
A determination needs to be made to decide if a worker/patient who has a limb that is at risk from “infection, bone loss, soft-tissue compromise related to trauma, tumor reconstruction, or peripheral vascular disease” requires limb salvage surgery or amputation reconstruction surgery.”
Limb-salvage surgery generally includes bone grafts, tissue transplantation, and implanting internal devices. Limb reattachment may also be a possibility.
According to Pharmacy Times, there are two types of amputation categories:
- “In an open-flap amputation, the surgeon amputates the diseased area but does not close the wound. The skin is drawn back from the amputation site for several days, allowing direct access to the wound should the tissue become infected.”
- “In a closed-flap amputation, the skin flaps are sutured immediately.3 In performing lower-limb amputations, surgeons prefer to amputate below the knee, which is linked to improved outcomes. Knee-joint salvage enhances rehabilitation and requires less energy for ambulation.”
“Prior to surgery, most patients are measured for their prostheses and receive counseling on living with an artificial limb. Prosthetic choice is individualized, ranging from externally fitted devices to patient-controlled motion robotics. “
Post-operative care for an amputation surgery generally ranges from 5 to 14 days. Most wounds heal in a month or two. Complications, according to Pharmacy Times, can include: “edema, hemorrhage, hematoma, site infections, sepsis, soft-tissue debridement, necrosis of the skin flaps, and pneumonia.”
Many workers whose limb or appendage has been amputated suffer “phantom pain, “– the experience of pain in the limb even though the limb is no longer there.
“Along with phantom pain, 76% of patients experience phantom limb sensations, generally in the form of tingling, burning, or itching. Once thought to be psychological, phantom sensations appear to result from brain nerve-circuitry changes. Over time, phantom pain tends to decrease or disappear altogether, but when phantom pain persists longer than 6 months, prognosis for total pain relief is poor.”
The Workers Compensation Aspects of Amputation Cases
In a recently-posted article, we discussed the Workers Compensation Benefits that may occur in the case of an amputation on the job. The Workers Compensation aspects of an amputation case are generally broken down into three different types of cases.
One-Limb Amputation-Unable to Return to Job. First, there are the cases where there are one or more limbs lost, and the injured worker is unable to return to pre-injury work due to the injuries. In these cases, a settlement is usually achieved based on the remainder of weeks in the Award. If there is an amputation to one limb, the injured worker would be entitled to no more than 500 weeks of compensation, and settlement may be achieved on that basis; however, due to the high cost of prosthetic replacement, which must typically occur every five years, the medical portion of the claim often remains open and unresolved because the settlement value would be more than the workers compensation carrier is willing to pay at once, in a lump sum. Sometimes, when the injured worker is older, assuming the injured worker regularly takes advantage of the medical benefits available through workers compensation, a full settlement of the medical benefits may be examined and the worker and his or her attorney approached for settlement.
Two-Limb Amputation or impairment—Unable to Return to Job. In those circumstances where there is tragically a loss of more than one limb, or even where one limb is not amputated, but clearly is damaged to the point of having significant permanent impairment in the limb, then the injured worker would not be limited to the 500-weeks of benefits, but would be eligible for lifetime compensation benefits. This is because the “loss” of two limbs is considered a permanent and total disability. This would obviously entail a much higher potential settlement value than a settlement that is limited to 500 weeks. Again, though, due to the high cost of prosthetic replacement, which must typically occur every five years, the medical portion of the claim often remains open and unresolved because the settlement value would be immense—and more than the insurance carrier is willing to pay at this point. That does not mean a medical settlement may never occur. The insurance carrier may want to wait until the injured worker is much older to consider closing out the medical portion of the claim.
Return to Work and One-Limb Amputation. If the injured worker is able to return to work at an equal or greater wage than before the accident, despite the amputation– as is often the case in younger workers– there is still the potential value due the injured worker for the permanent partial impairment rating of the amputated limb. This would not be a final settlement, but would be a number of weeks of compensation paid to the injured worker based on the percentage of impairment assigned by his or her doctor. In some cases, such as an above-the-knee amputation, that would obviously be 100%, but in others, such as a below-the-knee amputations, it may be less.
Virginia and North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Attorney Joe Miller Esq. understands the short-term and long-term needs of workers who lose a limb, whether it be a hand, foot, arm or leg – due to a workplace accident. He works with your doctors to understand what treatments you’ll need and for how long. He’s helped thousands of employees get the workers’ compensation recoveries they deserve. To schedule an appointment, call lawyer Joe Miller at 888-694-1671. or fill out my contact form.