What Are Pressure Ulcers?

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A pressure ulcer is an area of skin that breaks down when constant pressure is placed against the skin or when there's skin pressure in combination with shear and/or friction. This skin breakdown can result in exposure of the underlying tissue, potentially leading to complications, like a severe infection.

Pressure ulcers usually occur over a bony prominence, such as the sacrum (tail bone), hip bone, elbow, or ischium.​ They are treated with a variety of wound care methods, and in some severe cases, may require plastic surgery repair.

Nurses helping senior man into hospital bed

Prevention of pressure ulcers is one of the goals of nursing care for people who are not active. Alternative names include pressure injury (now the preferred term), pressure sore, decubitus ulcer, decubiti, and bedsore.

The National Pressure Ulcer Advisory Panel (NPUAP) initiated using the term pressure injury rather than pressure ulcer in 2016. This change was made because the injury begins before there is an ulcer (a break in the skin). The staging of pressure injuries was also modified at that time.

Types of Pressure Ulcers

Pressure injuries are classified according to stages describing the symptoms and the amount of tissue loss. Different classification systems have been used over the years. The staging system revised in 2016 by NPUAP describes these symptoms and stages:

  • Stage 1: Intact skin with persistent erythema (redness) of a localized area. When pressed, the area doesn't blanch. Blanching is lightening of the skin with pressure, and then darkening again when the pressure is released. If a person has darkly pigmented skin, redness may be harder to see, but the affected area may differ in color from the surrounding area. Early signs can include erythema, or changes in temperature, firmness, or sensation. If the color change is to purple or maroon, this indicates a severe deep-pressure injury.
  • Stage 2: Partial-thickness skin loss with exposed dermis. The wound looks like a shallow open ulcer or an intact or ruptured blister. The bed of the wound is still pink, red, and moist, indicating that it is viable (it can heal and survive). You don't see eschar (scab), granulation tissue (growth of healing skin that is pink or red and uneven), or slough (soft, moist tissue that adheres to the wound bed in string or clumps).
  • Stage 3: Full-thickness skin loss. Subcutaneous fat may be visible, but bone, tendon, or muscle are not exposed. Often you will see granulation tissue and rolled edges of the wound. There may be slough or eschar.
  • Stage 4: Full-thickness tissue loss with exposed bone, tendon, ligament, fascia, cartilage, or muscle. The wound may have slough, eschar, rolled edges, undermining, or tunneling.
  • Unstageable pressure injury: A stage 3 or 4 full-thickness injury that is obscured by slough or eschar. Stable eschar should not be removed if it develops on a limb or heel.
  • Deep tissue pressure injury: Intact or non-intact skin with a localized area of persistent non-blanching deep red, maroon, or purple discoloration or epidermal separation that reveals a dark wound bed or blood-filled blister.

Pressure Ulcer Symptoms

Those who are at risk of pressure ulcers need to have their skin checked by their caregivers frequently to look for the symptoms of pressure injury.

Signs to look for include:

  • Changes in skin color. In people with light skin tones, look for redness that doesn't blanch when you press lightly on it. In people with darker skin tones, look for darker areas of skin that don't lighten when you press lightly on them.
  • Swelling, pain, or tenderness
  • Areas of skin that feel warmer or cooler than the surrounding areas
  • An open ulcer or blister
  • Pus-like drainage

Complications of pressure ulcers may include:

  • Hematoma
  • Infection
  • Wound dehiscence (the edges of the wounds do not meet)
  • Recurrence


A pressure ulcer can occur anywhere prolonged pressure is applied. However, the most common susceptible areas are bony prominences. A report of the California Hospital Patient Safety Organization (CHPSO) found these the most frequent locations for healthcare-acquired pressure injuries, from most to least:

  • Coccyx
  • Sacrum
  • Heel
  • Ear
  • Buttocks
  • Ankle
  • Nose
  • Gluteal cleft (butt crack)


Skin breakdown is caused by sustained pressure on the skin. The pressure narrows or collapses blood vessels, which reduces blood flow to the skin and underlying tissues. This ultimately leads to tissue death.

Risk factors include:

  • Having poor skin hygiene
  • Lying on hard surfaces
  • Use of patient restraints
  • Having poor-fitting prostheses
  • Prolonged immobility
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Poor nutrition
  • Vascular disease
  • Spinal cord injury
  • Contractures
  • Immunosuppression

Pressure injuries may also result from medical devices. These can include bilevel noninvasive positive pressure breathing masks, endotracheal tubes, nasogastric tubes, and nasal oxygen cannula tubing.

High-Risk Populations for Pressure Ulcers

The highest incidences of pressure ulcers are found in the following populations:

  • Elderly
  • Those associated with trauma such as hip fractures and other fractures
  • Quadriplegic
  • Neurologically-impaired young (children with paralysis, spina bifida, brain injury, etc.)
  • Chronically hospitalized
  • Nursing home residents


When a pressure injury is suspected, a healthcare provider will assess it by location, size, appearance, color changes, the state of the base tissues and edges, pain, odor, and exudate.

The provider will look for signs of infection or edema. They will check the distal pulses, and check for signs of neuropathy.

Diagnostic tests may include ankle-brachial index, pulse volume recording, Doppler waveforms, and ultrasound imaging for venous disease.

Based on this assessment, the provider can then stage the ulcer and determine appropriate treatment and monitoring.


Pressure ulcers are managed both medically and/or surgically. When considering treatment, your healthcare provider will also consider your overall health and nutritional status.

Conservative Management

Stage 1 and 2 pressure ulcers can be managed without surgery. The wound is cleaned and then kept clean, moist, and covered with an appropriate dressing. Frequent dressing changes are used to keep the wound clean and prevent infection. Sometimes, topical antibiotic medications are used on pressure ulcers as well.


Stage 3 and 4 pressure ulcers frequently require surgical intervention. The first step is to remove all the dead tissue, in a procedure that's known as debridement. It can be done in several ways. These include the use of ultrasound, irrigation, laser, biosurgery (using maggots), surgery, and topical methods (such as medical-grade honey or enzyme ointments).

Debridement of the pressure ulcer is followed by flap reconstruction. Flap reconstruction involves using your own tissue to fill the hole/ulcer


Pressure ulcers are preventable. Here are some tips on how you can avoid them.

  • Minimize moisture to avoid skin maceration and breakdown. Avoid prolonged contact with feces, urine, or sweat.
  • Use caution when transferring to and from your bed or a chair. This avoids friction and shearing of the skin.
  • Avoid sitting or lying in one position for a prolonged period of time. Switching positions gives your skin a break and allows the return of blood flow.
  • In bed, relieve pressure on bony parts of your body by using pillows or foam wedges.
  • Maintain proper nutrition. Eating a healthy diet keeps your skin healthy and improves its ability to avoid injury and fight infection.

Hospital-acquired pressure injuries have been significantly reduced due to efforts made by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. The rate fell from 40.3 to 30.9 per 1,000 discharges from 2010 to 2014. The more serious stage 3 and 4 injuries dropeed from 11.8 to 0.8 cases per 1,000 patients from 2008 to 2012.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Cleveland Clinic. Pressure injuries (bedsores).

  3. CHPSO. By the numbers: CHPSO pressure injury data.

  4. Boyko TV, Longaker MT, Yang GP. Review of the current management of pressure ulcers. Adv Wound Care (New Rochelle). 2018;7(2):57–67. doi:10.1089/wound.2016.0697

  5. Rondinelli J, Zuniga S, Kipnis P, Kawar LN, Liu V, Escobar GJ. Hospital-acquired pressure injury: Risk-adjusted comparisons in an integrated healthcare delivery system. Nurs Res. 2018;67(1):16–25. doi:10.1097/NNR.0000000000000258

  6. DeMarco S. Wound and pressure ulcer management. Johns Hopkins Medicine.

  7. Cleveland Clinic. Pressure injuries (bedsores): Management and treatment.

  8. Cleveland Clinic. Pressure injuries (bedsores): Prevention.

  9. Rondinelli J, Zuniga S, Kipnis P, Kawar LN, Liu V, Escobar GJ. Hospital-acquired pressure injury: Risk-adjusted comparisons in an integrated healthcare delivery system. Nurs Res. 2018;67(1):16–25. doi:10.1097/NNR.0000000000000258