Pressure Ulcers

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A pressure ulcer - also known as a 'bed sore', 'pressure sore' and 'decubitus ulcer' - is an ulcerated area of skin caused by irritation and continuous pressure on part of your body. Pressure ulcers are more common over places where your bones are close to your skin (bony prominences) such as your heels, the lower part of your back and your bottom. There are various things that can increase your risk of developing a pressure ulcer. In particular, risk increases if your mobility is reduced for some reason and you are spending long periods lying in bed or sitting in a chair. There are various measures you can take to prevent most pressure ulcers developing. These include changing your position as much as possible and also using pressure-relieving devices.

A pressure ulcer is an ulcerated area of skin caused by irritation and continuous pressure on part of your body. It starts as an area of skin damage. The damage can then spread to your tissues underlying your skin. In very severe cases, there can be permanent damage to muscle or bone underneath your skin. This is not common though. Pressure ulcers can be very painful and can take a very long time to heal.

Pressure ulcers can affect any area of your body but are more common over places where your bones are close to your skin (bony prominences). Common areas for pressure ulcers to occur are around the lower part of the backbone (your sacrum), your heels, your elbows, your hips, your back, your bottom, the back of your head and your shoulders.

Pressure sore

By Mennfield, via Wikimedia Commons

Pressure ulcers can develop very quickly. In people who are at high risk (see below), it can take less than an hour for a pressure ulcer to develop.

Pressure ulcers are caused by the pressure from the weight of your body pressing down on your skin. They usually occur when a place where you have bone close to your skin (a bony prominence) is pressed against a surface such as a chair or a bed. This compresses your skin and your underlying tissues and can also damage blood vessels. Rubbing (friction) of your skin can also play a part in the formation of a pressure ulcer.

If you are spending long periods in bed or in a chair, you may slide down and need to be pulled back up again by someone else (or you may be able to pull yourself back up). However, as these sliding and pulling movements happen, the layers of your skin also slide over each other, as well as over the underlying tissues. These sliding, or 'shearing', forces can also contribute to pressure ulcer formation. Changes to your skin as it ages may make this sliding of your skin more likely.

A lot of moisture around your skin (for example, if you have urinary or stool (faecal) incontinence or you are sweating a lot) can increase the effects of pressure, friction and shearing forces. Damp skin becomes softer and more fragile.

Using the correct preventative measures (see below) should mean that most pressure ulcers are avoidable.

Most pressure ulcers occur when someone is admitted to hospital. They affect between 1 to 5 in every 100 people admitted to hospital. However, pressure ulcers can also develop in someone at home, or in a nursing or residential home.

A pressure ulcer is more likely to develop if you:

Pressure ulcers can look different depending on how severe they are. They are graded depending on their severity and how deep they go:

  • Grade 1 - your skin is permanently red but is not broken at all. It may feel warm, hard or slightly swollen. In dark-skinned people, your skin may be purple or blue in colour.
  • Grade 2 - the ulcer is still superficial. It may look like a blister or abrasion.
  • Grade 3 - the ulcer goes through the full thickness of the skin and there is damage to the tissues underneath the skin.
  • Grade 4 - this is the most severe form. The ulcer is deep and there is damage to muscle or bone underneath.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has produced guidelines with recommendations for best practice for the prevention of pressure ulcers. NICE recommends that all people who are admitted to hospital, a nursing home or similar, or people who are receiving nursing care at home, should be assessed for their risk of developing a pressure ulcer. This is usually done by a healthcare professional (usually a nurse). This assessment should be reviewed regularly because your situation may change.

There are various pressure ulcer risk assessment scales that may be used, looking at factors such as your diet, your mobility, your continence, your consciousness level any underlying illnesses that you may have, etc.

If you are assessed and found to be at increased risk then one or more of the following may be suggested:

1. Change your position as much as possible

Ideally, you should get up and move around as much as possible. However, if this is not feasible, you should change your position as much as possible when you are sitting or lying in bed. You may need help from someone else to change your position. Changing your position means that you are relieving pressure on areas of your body that may be prone to developing pressure sores. Ask your healthcare professional for advice about:

  • How to sit or lie.
  • How often you should move or have help with your position change and what position you should move to.
  • How to support your feet.
  • How to maintain a good posture (for example, how to stop your body slipping down in a chair).

2. Make sure you eat and drink the right things

It is important that you are eating a balanced diet and drinking plenty of fluids to help prevent pressure ulcers. Your healthcare professional may discuss your diet with you to see if it is likely that you are lacking in any nutrients. They may refer you to a dietician and/or you may be advised to take some supplements.

3. Use pressure-relieving devices

There are various devices that are available that can help to relieve pressure and prevent pressure ulcers. They include special beds, mattresses, cushions and overlays (these are placed on top of a mattress). They can work in the following ways:

  • Spreading out the pressure (for example, by moulding around the body).
  • Regularly removing pressure from different parts of the body (these are the more 'high-tech' devices).

All the surfaces that you sit or lie on need to be considered for pressure-relieving devices. This includes chairs and beds.

4. Make regular checks of your skin

Your healthcare professional should check your skin regularly to look for any signs of a pressure ulcer. You or your carer may also be able to check your skin (this may sometimes need the help of a mirror). Tell your healthcare professional if there are any areas of your skin that you are worried about.

If you already have a pressure ulcer, it should be assessed by a qualified healthcare professional. They may want to take a tracing or a photograph of the ulcer. This can then be used to monitor your response to treatment. They should be able to determine what grade of pressure ulcer you have, look for any signs of infection and try to work out what caused the ulcer.

For a pressure ulcer to heal, you need to change your position as much as possible (as described above) and also to use pressure-relieving mattresses and cushions. These both help to relieve the pressure on the ulcer. Current recommendations are that someone with a pressure ulcer should use a high-specification foam mattress. A high-specification foam or equivalent pressure-redistributing cushion should be used if you use a wheelchair or sit for prolonged periods.

Other treatments are often needed for pressure ulcers. These may include:

  • Pain relief - a pressure ulcer can be painful. Simple painkillers like paracetamol may be helpful. Sometimes stronger painkillers are needed.
  • A change to your diet - a poor diet can slow the healing of a pressure ulcer.
  • Dressings - various different dressings may be used, including gel and foam-based dressings.
  • Antibiotics - these may be needed if there are any signs of infection.
  • Surgery - sometimes surgery is needed to remove damaged or dead skin. The medical term that is used for this type of surgery is 'debridement'. Sometimes plastic surgery may be used to close a pressure ulcer that is not healing. Skin grafts may be needed.

A pressure ulcer can become infected. Rarely, this infection can spread to your blood (causing 'blood poisoning', or sepsis, or it can spread to your bone underneath the pressure sore (causing osteomyelitis). In severe cases, a pressure ulcer can cause permanent damage or loss of muscle or bone underneath the affected area of skin. Someone who has had a pressure sore before is more likely to develop a pressure sore in the future.

Original Author:
Dr Michelle Wright
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Dr Laurence Knott
Document ID:
12407 (v3)
Last Checked:
23/10/2015
Next Review:
22/10/2018
The Information Standard - certified member
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