Decubitus ulcer

Alternative names
Pressure sore; Pressure ulcer (bedsore)

Definition

A pressure ulcer is an area of skin that breaks down when you stay in one position for too long without shifting your weight. This often happens if you use a wheelchair or you are bedridden, even for a short period of time (for example, after surgery or an injury). The constant pressure against the skin reduces the blood supply to that area, and the affected tissue dies.

A pressure ulcer starts as reddened skin but gets progressively worse, forming a blister, then an open sore, and finally a crater. The most common places for pressure ulcers are over bony prominences (bones close to the skin) like the elbow, heels, hips, ankles, shoulders, back, and the back of the head.

Causes
These factors increase the risk for pressure ulcers:

     
  • Being elderly.  
  • Inability to move certain parts of your body without assistance, such as after spinal or brain injury or if you have a neuromuscular disease (like multiple sclerosis).  
  • Malnourishment.  
  • Being bedridden or in a wheelchair.  
  • Having a chronic condition, such as diabetes or vascular disease, that prevents areas of the body from receiving proper blood flow.  
  • Urinary incontinence or bowel incontinence. (Moisture next to the skin for long periods of time can cause skin irritation that may lead to skin breakdown.)  
  • Fragile skin.  
  • Mental disability from conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. (The patient may not be able to properly prevent or treat pressure ulcers.)

Symptoms
Pressure sores are categorized by severity, from Stage I (earliest signs) to Stage IV (worst):

     
  • Stage I: A reddened area on the skin that, when pressed, is “non-blanchable” (does not turn white). This indicates that a pressure ulcer is starting to develop.  
  • Stage II: The skin blisters or forms an open sore. The area around the sore may be red and irritated.  
  • Stage III: The skin breakdown now looks like a crater where there is damage to the tissue below the skin.  
  • Stage IV: The pressure ulcer has become so deep that there is damage to the muscle and bone, and sometimes tendons and joints.

First Aid
Once a pressure ulcer is identified, steps must be taken immediately:

     
  • Relieve the pressure on that area. Use pillows, special foam cushions, and sheepskin to reduce the pressure.  
  • Treat the sore based on the stage of the ulcer. Your health care provider will give you specific treatment and care instructions.  
  • Avoid further trauma or friction. Powder the sheets lightly to decrease friction in bed. (There are many items made specifically for this purpose - check a medical supplies store.)  
  • Improve nutrition and other underlying problems that may affect the healing process.  
  • If the pressure ulcer is at Stage II or worse, your health care provider will give you specific instructions on how to clean and care for open ulcers. It is very important to do this properly to prevent infection.  
  • Keep the area clean and free of dead tissue. Your health care provider will give you specific care directions. Generally, pressure ulcers are rinsed with a salt-water rinse to remove loose, dead tissue. The sore should be covered with special gauze dressing made for pressure ulcers.

Do Not

     
  • Do NOT massage the area of the ulcer. Massage can damage tissue under the skin.  
  • Donut-shaped or ring-shaped cushions are NOT recommended. They interfere with blood flow to that area and cause complications.

Call immediately for emergency medical assistance if
Contact your health care provider if an area of the skin blisters or forms an open sore. Contact the provider immediately if there are any signs of an infection. An infection can spread to the rest of the body and cause serious problems. Signs of an infected ulcer include:

     
  • A foul odor from the ulcer  
  • Redness and tenderness around the ulcer  
  • Skin close to the ulcer is warm and swollen

Fever, weakness, and confusion are signs that the infection may have spread to the blood or elsewhere in the body.

Prevention
If bedridden or immobile with diabetes, circulation problems, incontinence, or mental disabilities, you should be checked for pressure sores every day. Look for reddened areas that, when pressed, do not turn white. Also look for blisters, sores, or craters. In addition, take the following steps:

     
  • Change position at least every two hours to relieve pressure.  
  • Use items that can help reduce pressure - pillows, sheepskin, foam padding, and powders from medical supply stores.  
  • Eat healthy, well-balanced meals.  
  • Exercise daily, including range-of-motion exercises for immobile patients.  
  • Keep skin clean and dry. Incontinent people need to take extra steps to limit moisture.

 

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 3, 2012
by Gevorg A. Poghosian, Ph.D.

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All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.