An Overview of Pressure Ulcers

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The world of plastic surgery is not all glitz and glamor. Although cosmetic plastic surgery is often more in the spotlight, reconstructive plastic surgery is just as important in helping people feel good about themselves.

The treatment of pressure ulcers falls under the category of reconstructive plastic surgery. Plastic surgeons are trained to treat pressure ulcers, just as they are trained to perform facelifts and liposuction.

What a Pressure Ulcer Is

A pressure ulcer is an area of skin that breaks down when constant pressure, or pressure in combination with shear and/or friction, is placed against the skin. This skin breakdown can ultimately result in the exposure of the underlying tissue, including bone.

Pressure ulcers usually occur over a bony prominence, such as the sacrum (tail bone), hip bone, elbow, or ischium.​ Alternative names include pressure sore, decubitus ulcer, decubiti, and bedsore. Approximately 1.3 million to 3 million adults yearly are reported to have a pressure ulcer.

High-Risk Populations for Pressure Ulcers

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

  • Elderly patients with hip fractures: 66 percent have a pressure ulcer
  • Quadriplegic patients: 60 percent have a pressure ulcer
  • Neurologically impaired young (children with paralysis, spina bifida, brain injury, etc.)
  • Chronically hospitalized patients

Causes of Pressure Ulcers

Ulceration (skin breakdown) is caused by sustained pressures on the skin. The increased pressure narrows or collapses blood vessels, which decreases blood flow to the skin and underlying tissues. This ultimately leads to tissue death.

Pressure Ulcer Classification

Pressure ulcers are classified according to stages describing the amount of tissue loss.

  • Stage 1: Intact skin with persistent redness of a localized area. Darkly pigmented skin may differ in color from the surrounding area.
  • Stage 2: Partial thickness loss of dermis. The wound looks like a shallow open ulcer or an intact or ruptured blister.
  • Stage 3: Full thickness loss of dermis. Subcutaneous fat may be visible, but bone, tendon or muscle are not exposed.
  • Stage 4: Full thickness tissue loss with exposed bone, tendon or muscle.

Some pressure ulcers are unstageable due to the extent of tissue loss or coverage by an eschar.

Pressure Ulcer Sites

A pressure ulcer can occur anywhere prolonged pressure is applied. However, the most common susceptible areas are bony prominences:

  • Ischium: 28 percent of pressure ulcers are on the ischium
  • Hip bone: 19 percent of pressure ulcers are on the hip bone
  • Sacrum (Tail Bone): 17 percent of pressure ulcers are on the sacrum
  • Heel: 9 percent of pressure ulcers are on the heel
  • Scalp

Treatment

Pressure ulcers are managed both medically and/or surgically.

Stage 1 and 2 pressure ulcers can be managed without surgery. Frequent dressing changes are used to keep the wound clean and fight off bacteria. Sometimes, topical antibiotic medications are used on the pressure ulcer as well.

Stage 3 and 4 pressure ulcers frequently require surgical intervention. The first step is to remove all the dead tissue. This is known as "debridement." Debridement of the pressure ulcer is followed by flap reconstruction. Flap reconstruction involves using your own tissue to fill the hole/ulcer

Prevention

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

  • Minimize Moisture to Avoid Skin Maceration and Breakdown: This means avoiding 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 Laying in One Position for a Prolonged Period of Time: Switching positions gives your skin a break and allows the return of blood flow.
  • Maintain Proper Nutrition: Eating a healthy diet keeps your skin healthy and improves its ability to avoid injury and fight infection.

Complications

  • Hematoma
  • Infection
  • Wound dehiscence
  • Recurrence
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