A pressure ulcer is damage to an area of skin and the tissue under it from constant pressure or rubbing on the skin. The ulcer can be small or it can get quite large. It may even go down to the bone. Pressure ulcers happen most often on the tailbone, shoulder blades, side of the hip joint, ankle, knee, elbow, and back of the heel.
Pressure ulcers may also be called bedsores or decubitus ulcers.
What is the cause?
Constant pressure on the skin squeezes and closes the tiny blood vessels that normally bring nutrients and oxygen to the skin. When this happens, the skin can die, and a sore forms.
The following risk factors increase your chance of getting pressure ulcers:
Having to stay in bed or a chair for long periods of time
Having thin, frail skin and poor blood flow
Not being able to move without help, such as after a stroke, leg, or back injury
Not being able to control bowel movements or urine (the bowel movements or urine can irritate the skin)
Not eating a healthy diet
Not having enough fatty tissue over bony areas such as the shoulders, hips, heels, and ankles
Having numbness in some part of your body that keeps you from feeling when there is too much pressure on the skin or the skin is getting sore. This is common in people with diabetes.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms develop in stages:
Stage 1: A reddened or darkened area of skin appears and does not go away within 30 minutes after you change your position to put less pressure on the area.
Stage 2: The skin cracks, blisters, or peels.
Stage 3: The skin opens up and may ooze or drain. The sore is completely through the skin and is becoming a deeper sore. You may see some yellow tissue in the sore.
Stage 4: A deep sore develops. You may see muscle or even bone inside the sore.
Some pressure sores may cause only a small red or black area on the surface of the skin while there is a much larger area of damage underneath the skin. The area under the skin may feel soft and spongy.
How is it diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will examine your skin, looking for sores and other areas where it looks like sores may develop.
How is it treated?
Pressure sores need prompt and ongoing care in the early stages to try to prevent more damage and infection.
Here are some things to do if you think you may be getting a sore or have symptoms of a pressure sore:
Tell your healthcare provider right away.
Keep pressure off the area. For example, if the sore is on your back, try to lie on your stomach or side.
Keep the sore clean and protect it from urine and bowel movements. Ask your healthcare provider about products that can help you with this.
If the skin is broken, your healthcare provider can recommend ways to help the sore heal. Small sores may need only a padded dressing, plus not putting any pressure on the area around the sore. Larger sores often need special care. You may be sent to a treatment center or clinic for care.
Pressure ulcers can take a long time to heal, especially if they are deep. How fast the broken skin heals depends on your health, diet, and care. You may need surgery for a deep sore.
Call your healthcare provider right away if you have a sore and:
You start having a fever.
You notice a smell or a change in the color of drainage from a sore.
The skin around the sore is getting larger, more red or more painful.
How can I help prevent pressure ulcers?
Ways to lower the risk of pressure ulcers include:
Take care of your skin. Be extra careful about bony parts of your body where the skin is thin.
Change positions often–at least every 1 to 2 hours. Shift your position every 15 to 20 minutes if you sit for a long time in a chair or wheelchair.
Take other precautions to relieve pressure, like putting a pillow under your lower legs to relieve pressure on your heels.
Raise your legs to reduce swelling in your feet and legs when you sit. Ask your healthcare provider about this.
Avoid rubbing, chafing, or sliding across sticky, rough, or hard surfaces.
Avoid sitting or lying on wrinkles or seams in your clothing and bed linens.
Eat a healthy diet to give your skin the nutrition it needs.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth. Last modified: 2014-06-25 Last reviewed: 2014-06-24
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.