Pressure sores are areas of injured skin and tissue. They usually are caused by sitting or lying in one position for too long. This puts pressure on certain areas of the body. The pressure can reduce the blood supply to the skin and the tissues under the skin. When a change in position doesn't occur often enough and the blood supply gets too low, a sore may form. Pressure sores are also called bedsores, pressure ulcers and decubitus ulcers.
There are 4 stages of pressure sores. Symptoms at each stage include the following:
Stage 1. The affected skin looks red and may feel warm to the touch. The area may also burn, hurt or itch. In people who have dark skin, the pressure sore may have a blue or purple tint.
Stage 2. The affected skin is more damaged in a stage 2 pressure sore, which can result in an open sore that looks like an abrasion or a blister. The skin around the wound may discolored. The area is very painful.
Stage 3. These types of pressure sores usually have a crater-like appearance due to increased damage to the tissue below the skin's surface. This makes the wound deeper.
Stage 4. This is most serious type of pressure sore. The skin and tissue is severely damaged, causing a large wound. Infection can occur at this stage. Muscles, bones, tendons and joints can be affected by stage 4 pressure sores.
Pressure sores usually develop over bony parts of the body that don't have much fat to pad them. Pressure sores are most common on the heels and on the hips. Other areas at risk for pressure sores include the base of the spine (tail bone), the shoulder blades, the backs and sides of the knees, and the back of the head.
Pressure sores usually are caused by sitting or lying in one position for too long. This puts pressure on certain areas of the body. The pressure can reduce the blood supply to the skin and the tissues under the skin. When a change in position doesn't occur often enough and the blood supply gets too low, a sore may form.
Anyone who sits or lies in one position for a long time might get pressure sores. You are more likely to get pressure sores if you are paralyzed, use a wheelchair or spend most of your time in bed.
However, even people who are able to walk can develop pressure sores when they must stay in bed because of an illness or an injury. Some chronic diseases, such as diabetes and hardening of the arteries, make it hard for pressure sores to heal because of poor blood circulation.
There are several things you can do to help pressure sores heal:
What can be done to reduce pressure on the sore?
Don't lie on pressure sores. Use foam pads or pillows to take pressure off the sore. Special mattresses, mattress covers, foam wedges or seat cushions can help support you in bed or in a chair to reduce or relieve pressure. Try to avoid resting directly on your hip bone when you're lying on your side. Use pillows under one side so that your weight rests on the fleshy part of your buttock instead of on your hip bone. Also, use pillows to keep your knees and ankles apart. When lying on your back, place a pillow under your lower calves to lift your ankles slightly off the bed. When lying in bed, change your position at least every 2 hours.
When sitting in a chair or wheelchair, sit upright and straight. An upright, straight position will allow you to move more easily and help prevent new sores. You should change positions every 15 minutes when sitting in a chair or wheelchair. If you cannot move by yourself, have your caregiver help you shift your position.
In order to heal, pressure sores must be kept clean and free of dead tissue. Stage 1 sores can be cleaned with mild soap and water. You can clean stage 3 sores by rinsing the area with a salt and water solution. The saltwater removes extra fluid and loose material. Your doctor or nurse can show you how to clean your pressure sore.
Pressure sores should be kept covered with a bandage or dressing. Sometimes gauze is used. The gauze is kept moist and must be changed at least once a day. Newer kinds of dressings include a see-through film and a hydrocolloid dressing. A hydrocolloid dressing is a bandage made of a gel that molds to the pressure sore and helps promote healing and skin growth. These dressings can stay on for several days at a time.
Dead tissue (which may look like a scab) in the sore can interfere with healing and lead to infection. There are many ways to remove dead tissue from the pressure sore. Rinsing the sore every time you change the bandage is helpful. Special dressings that help your body dissolve the dead tissue can also be used. They are left in place for several days.
Another way to remove dead tissue is to put wet gauze bandages on the sore and allow them to dry. The dead tissue sticks to the gauze and is removed when the gauze is pulled off. For more severe pressure sores, dead tissue must be removed surgically.
Removing dead tissue and cleaning the sore can hurt. Your doctor can suggest a pain reliever for you to take 30 to 60 minutes before your dressing is changed to help reduce pain.
Good nutrition is important because it helps your body heal the sore. If you don't get enough calories, protein and other nutrients (especially vitamin C and zinc, which can help heal wounds like pressure sores), your body won't be able to heal, no matter how well you care for the pressure sore. Your doctor, nurse or a dietitian can give you advice about a healthy diet. Be sure to tell your doctor if you have lost or gained weight recently.
As a pressure sore heals, it slowly gets smaller. Less fluid drains from it. New, healthy tissue starts growing at the bottom of the sore. This new tissue is light red or pink and looks lumpy and shiny. It may take 2 to 4 weeks of treatment before you see these signs of healing.
Pressure sores that become infected heal more slowly and can spread a dangerous infection to the rest of your body. If you notice any of the signs of infection listed below, call your doctor right away.
Signs of an infected pressure sore include the following:
Signs that the infection may have spread include the following:
The treatment of an infected pressure sore depends on how bad the infection is. If only the sore itself is infected, an antibiotic ointment can be put on the sore. When bone or deeper tissue is infected, antibiotics are often required. They can be given intravenously (through a needle put in a vein) or orally (by mouth).
The most important step to prevent pressure sores is to avoid prolonged pressure on one part of your body, especially the pressure points mentioned previously.
It's also important to keep your skin healthy. Keep your skin clean and dry. Use a mild soap and warm (not hot) water. Apply moisturizers so your skin doesn't get too dry. If you must spend a lot of time in bed or in a wheelchair, check your whole body every day for spots, color changes or other signs of sores. Pay special attention to the pressure points where sores are most likely to occur.
If you smoke, you should quit. People who smoke are more likely to develop pressure sores.
Exercise can help improve blood flow, strengthen your muscles and improve your overall health. Talk to your doctor if physical activity is hard for you. He or she can suggest exercises that can work for you, or refer you to physical therapist that can help.
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff