Trench foot: the medical response in the first World War 1914-18

Wilderness Environ Med. Winter 2006;17(4):282-9. doi: 10.1580/06-weme-lh-027r.1.

Abstract

The approaching 90-year anniversary of United States entry into the Great War is an apt time to examine the response to trench foot (now called nonfreezing cold injury [NFCI]) in this conflict. Trench foot appeared in the winter of 1914, characterized by pedal swelling, numbness, and pain. It was quickly recognized by military-medical authorities. There was little debate over whether it was frostbite or new condition, and it was quickly accepted as a specific disease. The major etiologies proposed were exposure, diet, and infection. The opinion emerged that it was caused by circulatory changes in the foot caused by cold, wet, and pressure. Predisposing factors included dietary inadequacy and fatigue. A number of labels were first given to the disease. However, the name "trench foot" was eventually officially sanctioned. Trench foot became a serious problem for the Allies, leading to 75 000 casualties in the British and 2000 in the American forces. Therapy for trench foot involved a number of conventional, tried-and-tested, and conservative methods. Some more innovative techniques were used. Amputation was only used as a last resort. Prevention involved general measures to improve the trench environment; modification of the footwear worn by the men; and the provision of greases to protect them from moisture. The medical reaction to this condition seems to have been relatively effective. The causation was identified, and prophylactic measures were introduced to fit this model; these seem to have been successful in reducing the prevalence of the condition by 1917-18.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Europe
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Immersion Foot / etiology
  • Immersion Foot / history*
  • Immersion Foot / prevention & control
  • Military Medicine / history*
  • World War I*