How Amputation Works

Using a utility knife, Aron Ralston sawed off his own right arm in a remote Utah canyon. Check out extreme sports pictures.
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In May of 2003, mountaineer Aron Ralston was climbing in a remote Utah canyon when a boulder shifted, crushing his arm against a cliff. After spend­ing several days pinned against the rock, he had exhausted all options for freeing his arm, as well as his supply of water. On the fifth day, Aron finally began the procedure he'd been contemplating all along: amputating his trapped arm.

After applying a makeshift tourniquet and snapping his lower arm bones against the boulder, he used a utility knife to cut and rip through the tissues of his arm to free himself. He then rappelled more than 60 feet down a cliff and hiked six miles to rescue. Years later, Aron leads as active a lifestyle as ever. Though he now relies on a prosthetic limb, he is able to enjoy many of the same activities as before his accident.

The harrowing ordeal Aron Ralston faced points out some of the key principles of amputation surgery. First off, his tale illustrates that an amputation is performed only as a last resort, after all other options have been considered. Aron's story also points out that, although an amputation is a drastic measure, it doesn't have to result in a complete life change. Through physical therapy and prosthetic devices, an amputee can adapt remarkably to the loss of a body part and continue to lead a fulfilling lifestyle.

In this article, we'll explore the details surrounding amputation. What makes an amputation necessary? How do doctors perform the surgery? What is it like to undergo and recover from an amputation?

Let's begin with some of the basics. When exactly is an amputation necessary and why?