Leg Ulcers

Authored by , Reviewed by Prof Cathy Jackson | Last edited | Meets Patient’s editorial guidelines

This article is for Medical Professionals

Professional Reference articles are designed for health professionals to use. They are written by UK doctors and based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. You may find the Venous Leg Ulcers article more useful, or one of our other health articles.

Treatment of almost all medical conditions has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. NICE has issued rapid update guidelines in relation to many of these. This guidance is changing frequently. Please visit https://www.nice.org.uk/covid-19 to see if there is temporary guidance issued by NICE in relation to the management of this condition, which may vary from the information given below.

See also the separate Venous Leg Ulcers article.

A leg ulcer is defined as the loss of skin below the knee on the leg or foot, which takes more than two weeks to heal[1].

The aetiology of leg ulcers may be venous, arterial or both. It is very important to determine the aetiology of the ulcers as this has crucial implications for management. However, it is not uncommon to have a venous ulcer in the presence of arterial insufficiency and this complicates matters.

The Lothian and Forth Valley Study of 600 patients with leg ulceration reported that 76% had venous disease and 22% had arterial disease. 10-20% had mixed venous and arterial insufficiency. 9% of the group had rheumatoid arthritis and 5% had diabetes.

The UK prevalence of chronic venous ulceration is assessed as 0.1%-0.3%. Prevalence increases with age and with obesity.

There is no difference in prevalence between socio-economic classes but, in people from lower social classes, they take longer to heal. About 80% are managed entirely in the community[4].

Improvement in life expectancy is likely to increase the prevalence of leg ulcers in the population. Even at current levels, treatment of leg ulcers is a major economic burden. It has been calculated that such treatment consumes about £400-600 million of the UK health budget each year[5].

Risk factors

Features in the past history may indicate the origin.

Risks for venous ulcers[6]

  • Varicose veins.
  • Previous deep vein thrombosis in the affected leg.
  • Phlebitis in the affected leg.
  • Previous fracture, trauma, or surgery.
  • Family history of venous disease.
  • Symptoms of venous insufficiency: leg pain, heavy legs, aching, itching, swelling, skin breakdown, pigmentation and eczema.

Risks for arterial ulcers[7]

  • Coronary heart disease.
  • History of stroke or transient ischaemic attack.
  • Diabetes mellitus.
  • Peripheral arterial disease including intermittent claudication.
  • Obesity and immobility.

The type of ulcer may be apparent from its position and associated features.

Venous ulceration

This is usually around the circumference of the lower leg from approximately mid-calf to just below the malleoli. There is often peripheral oedema.

They are larger but shallower than other ulcers. Stasis ulcers have a moist granulating base and an irregular border. This base oozes venous blood when handled. There may be varicose veins and varicose eczema. There may be signs of stasis dermatitis around the ulcer. Hyperpigmentation is due to haemosiderin deposition or iron pigments in the skin. Lipodermatosclerosis is dermatitis followed by induration and dermal fibrosis.

There may be atrophie blanche (smooth, ivory-white plaques stippled with telangiectasias and surrounded by hyperpigmentation).

Patients often complain of mild pain that is relieved by elevation. Oedema of the lower leg is common.

Arterial ulcers

These are often more distal and on the dorsum of the foot or toes.

Initially they have irregular edges but this may become more clearly defined. The ulcer base contains greyish, granulation tissue. Handling, such as debriding these ulcers, produces little or no blood.

Nocturnal pain is typical. It is worse when supine and is relieved by dangling the legs out of bed.

There are often features of chronic ischaemia, such as hairlessness, pale skin, absent pulses, nail dystrophy and wasting of calf muscles.

Neuropathic ulcers[8]

They have a punched-out appearance with a deep sinus. These are often under calluses or over pressure points such as the plantar aspect of the first or fifth metatarsophalangeal joint. They are often surrounded by chronic inflammatory tissue. Probing or debriding may lead to brisk bleeding. They are usually painless and the surrounding area will show diminished or absent sensation.

Further examination[3]

Assess the ulcerated area:

  • Serial measurement (length and width) is an indicator of the success of healing.
  • Tracing of the margins and photography may be helpful.
  • Note the site of the ulcer.
  • Assess the edge of the ulcer (shallow, punched out, rolling).
  • Assess the base of the ulcer (granulating, sloughy, necrotic) and its position.
  • Note the condition of surrounding skin, odour and signs of infection.

As well as inspecting the ulcer or ulcers:

  • Check peripheral pulses.
  • Check sensation.
  • With the patient in a standing position, inspect for varicose veins. Note any peripheral oedema and varicose eczema.
  • Examination of the pulse should be performed and a record taken of blood pressure and body mass index.

The possibilities of arterial, venous and neuropathic ulcers have already been mentioned.

  • Rheumatoid arthritis can produce a vasculitic ulcer. It is typically deep, well demarcated and punched-out on the dorsum of the foot or calf. They may also have venous disease due to poor mobility, and neuropathy, and possibly impaired healing due to use of steroids.
  • Systemic vasculitis often causes multiple leg ulcers that are necrotic and deep. There is usually an atypical distribution with vasculitic lesions elsewhere such as nail-fold infarcts and splinter haemorrhages. Associated diseases include systemic lupus erythematosus, scleroderma, polyarteritis nodosa, or granulomatosis with polyangiitis.
  • Diabetic ulcer is typically on the foot over a bony prominence. Neuropathic, arterial and venous components may all contribute.
  • Hypertensive ulcer, due to arteriolar occlusion, is painful with necrotic edges and is usually on the lateral aspect of the lower leg.
  • A malignant ulcer may be a basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, malignant melanoma of skin, or Bowen's disease. They are rare but must be considered if ulceration does not respond to treatment. Metabolic and haematological disease can also cause ulcers.
  • Check urine for glucose unless the patient is known to have diabetes.
  • In those with known diabetes, check the records for diabetic care and the level of control.
  • If there is any suggestion of active infection take swabs; however, routine swabs are not recommended. Active infection should be suspected if there is[10]:
    • Increased pain
    • Enlarging ulcer
    • Cellulitis
    • Pyrexia
  • Get blood tests for FBC, erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), U&E, creatinine, autoantibodies and haemoglobinopathy.
  • Patch testing using the leg ulcer series should be considered for leg ulcer patients who have eczema or dermatitis.
  • Having checked the brachial blood pressure in the usual way, check the blood pressure with a cuff around the calf. A larger cuff will probably be needed. Measure both sides. This enables the ankle-brachial pressure index (ABPI) to be calculated and is a more sensitive assessment of arterial disease than simply palpating peripheral pulses. Even if the ulcer is thought to be venous this is important before pressure bandages are applied. Hand-held Doppler gives a much more sensitive assessment of ABPI than auscultation.
  • Venography gives little functional information and has been superseded by duplex imaging, which is indicated for patients with recurrent or complicated varicose veins, short saphenous incompetence, or suspected deep venous disease[8]. This technique can give a good functional assessment and can be used to track abnormalities of the venous circulation from the ulcer to the site of incompetence at the proximal vessels[11]. Superficial venous incompetence is almost universal and is the predominant cause of venous hypertension in approximately half of limbs with venous ulcers, particularly in younger patients with good mobility. Venous function in patients with mixed deep and superficial disease should be investigated by ambulatory venous pressure measurements[4]. This involves cannulation of a foot vein and the use of tourniquets to occlude incompetent superficial veins to select those patients who may benefit from superficial venous surgery.
  • Magnetic resonance venography has been used to produce three-dimensional images that can contribute considerably to the management of recurrent varicosities[12].
  • Angiography may be helpful in assessing the viability of tissue if plastic surgery or revascularisation is considered. Magnetic resonance arteriography can also be useful[8].
  • Computerised tomography may also have a role in both arterial and venous disease[8].
  • Intravascular ultrasound can be used to determine plaque volume within the wall of an artery and/or the degree of stenosis. It can also discriminate between normal and diseased components[8].

Interpretation of ABPI[3, 13]

  • An ABPI of 1 is normal. Graduated compression bandages may be applied if the figure is 0.8 or higher.
  • ABPI between 0.5 and 0.8 suggests arterial disease and requires referral to a vascular clinic for further assessment. Compression bandages are best avoided but reduced compression can be used under strict supervision if the ulcer is clinically of venous origin. Clinical progress should be checked daily initially and compression modified accordingly.
  • ABPI less than 0.5 suggests arterial ulcers and compression treatment is contra-indicated. Referral should be made to a vascular clinic for further assessment and possible revascularisation.
  • ABPI measurements in patients with diabetes or atherosclerosis may be falsely high and misleading. Calcification of the vessels causes rigidity and artificially high readings.
  • Microvascular disease associated with rheumatoid arthritis and systemic vasculitis cannot be assessed by ABPI. Where there is doubt, such patients should be referred for specialist assessment.

About 80% of venous ulcers can be managed in primary care but it is important to know who should be referred to a vascular or other clinic.

  • If the ABPI is less than 0.8, refer for further assessment of arterial disease.
  • If the ABPI is less than 0.5, refer urgently.
  • Refer if the ulcer fails to respond to primary care treatment after two weeks.
  • A suspected malignant ulcer, a rapidly deteriorating ulcer, or diagnostic uncertainty require referral. An atypical appearance or distribution of ulcers may require biopsy by a dermatologist or duly accredited GP. Even if it is not malignant, healing will be poor if it has poor blood supply.
  • Refer a suspected rheumatoid ulcer, or ulcers associated with systemic vasculitis.
  • People with diabetes with an ulcer on the foot should be referred according to local arrangements.
  • If acute ischaemic changes develop because of compression bandaging, this requires urgent vascular referral.
  • Suspected contact dermatitis or not responding to topical steroids should be referred to a dermatologist.

What to put in a referral letter[3]

As well as the usual history of duration, treatment tried, and past medical and social history, it is important to detail a careful description of the ulcer, as follows:

  • The appearance of the ulcer edge - eg, shallow, epithelialising, punched out.
  • The base of the ulcer - eg, granulating, sloughy.
  • The site - medial, lateral, anterior, posterior or a combination.
  • A photograph - if technology allows.

This depends upon the cause but good nutrition, attention to hygiene and cessation of smoking are beneficial.

Arterial ulcers

These will usually require referral for assessment and care. It is really the management of peripheral arterial disease. See the separate Peripheral Arterial Disease article.

Neuropathic ulcers

Ulcers may occur due to abnormalities of the nerve supply to the area. The term 'neurotrophic ulcer' is occasionally seen in the literature, indicating that there is sometimes a vascular component as well.

The cause of the neuropathy must be sought. It is usually diabetes and good control is important. It may not yet have been diagnosed. If possible, the cause of the neuropathy should be treated but a reversible cause will be exceptional.

The patient must be educated about the origin of the ulcer. Pain serves a purpose. It warns us when things are wrong and usually stops us from persisting. With impaired sensation, feet should be checked every night. Attention to socks and shoes is important. People can walk around with objects in their shoes because they cannot feel them. Check the temperature of bath water with the elbow before getting in. Do not go around with bare feet.

If the blood supply is good and recurrent insults are avoided, the ulcers should heal well. Where a vascular component exists, current management is weighted towards revascularisation[14].

Venous ulcers

See the separate Venous Leg Ulcers article.

Mixed arterial and venous ulcers

These should be managed in a specialist clinic; they sometimes benefit from a combination of compression bandaging and revascularisation procedures[15].

Further reading and references

  • Coull AF, Atherton I, Taylor A, et al; Prevalence of skin problems and leg ulceration in a sample of young injecting drug users. Harm Reduct J. 2014 Aug 1311:22. doi: 10.1186/1477-7517-11-22.

  • Anderson I; (2011) Managing venous leg ulcers. Nursing Times 107: 35,

  • UrgoStart for chronic wounds; NICE MedTech Innovation Briefing, October 2016

  1. Leg ulcer - venous; NICE CKS, February 2016 (UK access only)

  2. Aziz Z, Cullum N, Flemming K; Electromagnetic therapy for treating venous leg ulcers. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Feb 282:CD002933. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD002933.pub5.

  3. Management of chronic venous leg ulcers; Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network - SIGN (August 2010)

  4. Simon DA, Dix FP, McCollum CN; Management of venous leg ulcers. BMJ. 2004 Jun 5328(7452):1358-62.

  5. Chamanga E; Understanding the impact of leg ulcer bandaging on patient quality of life, Journal of Community Nursing, 2014, Vol 28, No 1.

  6. Vasudevan B; Venous leg ulcers: Pathophysiology and Classification. Indian Dermatol Online J. 2014 Jul5(3):366-70. doi: 10.4103/2229-5178.137819.

  7. Grey JE, Harding KG, Enoch S; Venous and arterial leg ulcers. BMJ. 2006 Feb 11332(7537):347-50.

  8. Spentzouris G, Labropoulos N; The evaluation of lower-extremity ulcers. Semin Intervent Radiol. 2009 Dec26(4):286-95. doi: 10.1055/s-0029-1242204.

  9. Labropoulos N, Manalo D, Patel NP, et al; Uncommon leg ulcers in the lower extremity. J Vasc Surg. 2007 Mar45(3):568-573. Epub 2007 Jan 25.

  10. Venous Leg Ulcers: Infection Diagnosis and Microbiology Investigation - Quick Reference Guide; Public Health England, March 2016

  11. Obermayer A, Garzon K; Sourcing of superficial reflux in venous leg ulcers using duplex ultrasound. J Vasc Surg. 2010 Aug 6.

  12. Muller MA, Mayer D, Seifert B, et al; Recurrent Lower-Limb Varicose Veins: Effect of Direct Contrast-enhanced Three-dimensional MR Venographic Findings on Diagnostic Thinking and Therapeutic Decisions. Radiology. 2008 Apr 10.

  13. Al-Qaisi M, Nott DM, King DH, et al; Ankle brachial pressure index (ABPI): An update for practitioners. Vasc Health Risk Manag. 20095:833-41. Epub 2009 Oct 12.

  14. Taylor SM, Johnson BL, Samies NL, et al; Contemporary management of diabetic neuropathic foot ulceration: a study of 917 consecutively treated limbs. J Am Coll Surg. 2011 Apr212(4):532-45

  15. Humphreys ML, Stewart AH, Gohel MS, et al; Management of mixed arterial and venous leg ulcers. Br J Surg. 2007 Sep94(9):1104-7.