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Gunshot Wound to a Limb

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Jan 5, 2023.

What do I need to know about a gunshot wound (GSW) to a limb?

A GSW to the limb may cause damage to your bones, tendons, or ligaments. It may also cause damage to your muscles, nerves, or major blood vessels.

How are injuries from a GSW diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will examine your body to check for injury. A GSW to the limb may cause damage to your bones, tendons, and ligaments. It may also cause damage to your muscles, nerves, or major blood vessels. He or she will look to see if you have entrance and exit wounds from the bullet. You may need any of the following tests to diagnose the damage caused by your GSW:

  • An x-ray, ultrasound, CT, or MRI may show damage to the structures in your arm or leg. It may also show where the bullet is. You may be given contrast liquid to help your organs or blood vessels show up better in the pictures. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the healthcare provider if you have any metal in or on your body.
  • A neurovascular exam may show damage to your blood vessels or nerves and show any problems with your circulation. Your healthcare provider will check your pulses, skin temperature, and skin color of your limbs. He or she will also ask you to squeeze his or her hands with your hands and move your feet.
  • Blood and urine tests will show infection and kidney function, and give healthcare providers information about your overall condition.
  • Surgery may be needed to find damage or where you are bleeding from.

How is a minor GSW treated?

A GSW may be minor if it does not go deep into your skin or damage any of your organs. Your healthcare provider may or may not remove the bullet. He or she may clean your wound and close it with stitches or staples.

How is a severe GSW treated?

You may need any of the following:

  • Medicines may be given to treat pain and prevent infection. You may be given a tetanus shot. Tetanus is a severe infection caused by bacteria. Tell your healthcare provider if you have had the tetanus vaccine or a tetanus booster within the last 5 years.
  • A blood transfusion may be given if you bleed heavily from your GSW.
  • IV fluids may be given to prevent dehydration and increase blood flow to major organs.
  • An immobilizer, splint, or cast may be applied to your limb to prevent it from moving. It may help your wound heal.
  • Surgery may be needed to repair damage to bones, tendons, ligaments, or major blood vessels in your arm or leg. It may also be needed to clean your GSW or remove the bullet. Your healthcare provider can close your GSW with stitches or staples. Your GSW may need to be left open to allow swelling to decrease and tissues to heal.

How can I care for myself after a GSW to a limb?

  • Care for your wound as directed. Carefully wash the wound with soap and water. Dry the area and put on new, clean bandages as directed. Change your bandages when they get wet or dirty. Monitor your wound for signs of infection, such as redness, swelling, or pus.
  • Apply ice on the wound area for 15 to 20 minutes every hour or as directed. Use an ice pack, or put crushed ice in a plastic bag. Cover it with a towel. Ice helps prevent tissue damage and decreases swelling and pain.
  • Elevate your arm or leg above the level of your heart as often as you can. This will help decrease swelling and pain. Prop your arm or leg on pillows or blankets to keep it elevated comfortably.

    Elevate Leg
  • Exercise as directed. Your healthcare provider may teach you exercises to strengthen the injured part of your limb. Exercises may also improve blood flow and prevent blood clots. You may need physical therapy.
  • Do not lift anything heavy. Heavy lifting may place too much stress on your GSW. Ask your healthcare provider how much weight you can lift.
  • Get support. It is normal to have difficult and unexpected feelings after being shot. You may have feelings such as anger, depression, fear, or anxiety. You may have nightmares or continue to think about what has happened. Talk to your healthcare provider if you have any of these feelings. Treatments are available to help you.

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) for any of the following:

  • You feel lightheaded, short of breath, and have chest pain.
  • You cough up blood.
  • You have trouble breathing.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • Blood soaks through your bandage.
  • Your wound comes apart.
  • Your arm or leg is numb, pale, or cool to the touch.
  • Your arm or leg feels warm, tender, and painful. It may look swollen and red.

When should I call my doctor?

  • You have a fever.
  • Your wound is red, swollen, or draining pus.
  • Your splint or cast falls off.
  • You have nausea or are vomiting.
  • Your pain is not relieved with pain medicine.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.