Necrosis and gangrene are two terms encountered in pathology. Although these are not terms usually heard among non-medical people, it is helpful to understand the basic differences especially if these happen to you or your loved ones. After extensive tissue injury, the doctors may use these terms when they explain things to you. They are very difficult to explain in a few simple terms because they are complex processes with multiple important stages. Therefore, medical professionals use the terms necrosis and gangrene to refer to the whole process. The first thing to get into our heads is that there are various types of necrosis and gangrene is one such type. The difference between necrosis and gangrene is, therefore, subtle.
Necrosis may occur directly or after cell degeneration. Early changes are very subtle and appear on electron microscope only after 2 to 3 hours and in the light microscope only after 6 hours. Cellular changes can be divided into nuclear changes and cytoplasmic changes. Nuclear material may first clump into dense masses, which stain with basic stains. This is known as “Pyknosis”. Afterwards, these clumps may break up into small particles in a process known as “Karyorrhexis”, or get lysed in a process called “Karyolysis”. Cytoplasmic changes start with the cytoplasm becoming homogenous and stain deeply with acidic stains. This is due to denaturation of cytoplasmic proteins. Special organelles absorb water and swell. Enzymes get released from lysosomes, and the cell is broken down (autolysis). Biochemically all these changes occur in concert with a massive influx of calcium ions. There are many types of necrosis. They are coagulative necrosis, liquefactive necrosis, fat necrosis, caseous necrosis, gummatous necrosis, fibrinoid necrosis and gangrene.
In coagulative necrosis cells retain the cellular outline for a few days while all the other changes occur. This type of necrosis is seen commonly in solid organs most commonly following poor blood supply. In liquefactive necrosis the cell is lysed completely; thus there is no cellular outline. This is commonly seen in the brain and spinal cord. There are two types of fat necrosis; enzymatic and non-enzymatic fat necrosis. In enzymatic fat necrosis which occurs characteristically in acute pancreatitis, the cell fats get lysed into fatty acids and glycerol by pancreatic lipase and the result forms complexes with calcium. Thus, the appearance is chalky white. Non-enzymatic fat necrosis is mostly seen in subcutaneous tissue, breast and abdomen. Patients with non-enzymatic fat necrosis almost always give a history of trauma. However, trauma is not clearly identified as the definitive cause. Fibrosis closely follows non-enzymatic fat necrosis forming a solid mass sometimes indistinguishable from a cancer clinically. Caseous and gummatous necrosis are due to granuloma formation after infections. Fibrinoid necrosis is commonly seen in autoimmune diseases.
Gangrene is a widely used term, to refer to a clinical condition where extensive tissue necrosis is complicated to varying degrees by secondary bacterial infection. There are three types of gangrene; dry, wet and gas gangrene. Dry gangrene mostly occurs at extremities due to poor blood supply resulting from blockage of arteries. Wet gangrene results from severe bacterial infection superimposed on necrosis. It can occur at extremities as well as in internal organs. Wet gangrene is difficult to demarcate from adjacent healthy tissue; therefore, surgical excision is difficult. Mortality rate in wet gangrene is high. Gas gangrene is due to Clostridium perfringens infection. It is characterized by extensive necrosis and production of gas. There is crepitation on palpation.
What is the difference between Necrosis and Gangrene?
• Necrosis can occur without infection while gangrene is due to infection of necrotic tissue.
• Gangrene is usually extensive than other types of necrosis.
• Mortality in gangrene is higher than in other types of necrosis.
1. Difference Between Necrosis and Apoptosis