Amputation: Removal of part or all of a body part enclosed by skin. For example, removal of part of a finger or an entire finger would be termed an amputation. Removal of an appendix, on the other hand, would not be termed amputation. A person who has undergone an amputation is called an amputee.
Amputation usually takes place during surgery in a hospital operating room. It is performed to prevent the spread of gangrene as a complication of frostbite, injury, diabetes, arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), or any other illness that impairs blood circulation. It is also performed to prevent the spread of bone cancer and to curtail loss of blood and infection in a person who has suffered severe, irreparable damage to a limb.
When performing an amputation, surgeons generally cut above the diseased or injured area so that a portion of healthy tissue remains to cushion bone. Sometimes the location of a cut may depend in part on its suitability to be fitted with an artificial limb, or prosthesis.
Amputation can also occur at an accident site, the scene of an animal attack, or a battlefield. History books often recount the story of Lord Uxbridge, a British cavalry officer who lost a leg in the Battle of Waterloo. After the traumatic event, Uxbridge--with a stiff upper lip--held a burial ceremony for his limb on the battlefield, then recounted the "obsequies" in a letter sent home to his wife. Herman Melville's great American novel, Moby Dick, tells the story of a sea captain, Ahab, who lost part of his leg when he was attacked by a great white whale. Ahab spends the rest of his life tracking down the whale to gain revenge--and ends up losing his life.
Two other types of amputation are self-amputation, which occurs when a trapped person frees himself or herself by removing part or all of a body part, and congenital amputation, which occurs when a person is born without part or all of a body part.
"Amputation" is derived from the Latin word "amputare" (to excise, to cut out).