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Negative thoughts can affect outcomes for diabetic foot ulcers

by Barbara Hewitt on April 27, 2016

Diabetics who suffer from foot ulcers and are positive about their treatment and outlook are more likely to have am longer life expectancy, new research has found.

People with type 1 and type 2 diabetes are susceptible to leg and foot ulcers because of nerve damage and the narrowing of arteries to the feet and lower leg. Small injuries to the foot can fail to heal and turn into ulcers which can become infected and hard to treat, sometimes leading to amputation and even death.

Some previous research has linked poor outcomes for diabetic ulcer patients with depression and those with negative thoughts about their condition.

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Now researchers from the University of Nottingham in England have found that the beliefs and expectations of people with diabetic foot ulcers about their illness have a significant independent effect on their survival.

The study was carried out over five years during which 169 patients were interviewed about their diabetic foot ulcers. The findings of the study could improve understanding of mortality risk and could also inform future therapeutic treatment to improve survival.

“We wanted to test the hypothesis that life expectancy in people with diabetic foot ulcers is shorter in patients with negative beliefs regarding their symptoms and attitudes to caring for their feet,” said Professor Kavita Vedhara from the University of Nottingham’s School of Medicine.

Data such as diabetes type, glucose control, number of previous ulcers, size and location of ulcer and infection levels were collected at baseline, and the patients completed a survey of their illness beliefs and depression levels.

All the patients were given the same foot care advice and treatment for their foot ulcers. Further data about survival and mortality were collected on the patients in 2011, between four and nine years after they had been recruited into the study.

“We found that of the 160 patients for whom data on mortality were available, 104 were alive and 56 had died. The patients had an average age of 61 and most had type 2 diabetes. Most patients had had a previous ulcer and in one third of the cohort the index ulcer was infected at the start of the study. The psychological data revealed on average low levels of depression,” explained Professor Vedhara.

“Our analysis examined whether patients’ beliefs about their ulcer predicted survival, after taking into account the effects of depression and other clinical factors that might be expected to influence mortality. We found that, although depression was not a significant predictor, patients who believed their ulcers were associated with greater symptoms died more quickly,” she pointed out.

“These patients also believed that their ulcers would have more serious consequences for them, believed they would last a long time, found them distressing and believed they had little control over them. This constellation of beliefs appears to have been common in people who died more quickly in this study,” she added.

She also pointed out that although this study is limited by the modest number of participants and the observational design, the findings suggest that negative beliefs about one’s illness, alongside other clinical factors, may influence survival in people with diabetic foot ulcers.

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