Harbor Foot & Ankle Podiatric Medical Group



Slow Healing Wounds

When using the term ulcer, we are generally referring to breaks in the normal integrity of the skin. Ulcers are skin wounds that are slow to heal and are classified in four stages, according to which layers of skin are broken through.

Stage 1 ulcers are characterized by a reddening over bony areas. The redness on the skin does not go away when pressure is relieved.

Stage 2 ulcers are characterized by blisters, peeling or cracked skin. There is a partial thickness skin loss involving the top two layers of the skin.

Stage 3 ulcers are characterized by broken skin and sometimes bloody drainage. There is a full thickness skin loss involving subcutaneous tissue (the tissue between the skin and the muscle.)

Stage 4 ulcers are characterized by breaks in the skin involving skin, muscle, tendon and bone and are often associated with a bone infection called osteomyelitis.

How an ulcer feels is dependent on the underlying cause of the ulcer. For example, one of the more common types of ulcers is seen in patients with diabetes, who have loss of sensation in their feet. In this type of ulcer, there is little if any pain, due to a condition called diabetic neuropathy. In fact, diabetics typically get this type of ulcer because they've lost their protective pain sensation. Another common ulcer is due to loss of arterial blood flow to the leg, resulting in ischemic ulcers that can be very painful.

So you can see that it very important to have any break in the skin properly evaluated and the lack of pain is not always a good initiator as to the severity of the problem.

There are many different diagnostic tests that can be done in the course of treating an ulcer. If the ulcer appears to be infected, i.e., there is redness, and drainage, then a culture of the wound should be done. The reason for the culture is to identify the type of infection, so that you can be put on the appropriate antibiotic. If there is suspicion of the bone being infected under the ulcer, the doctor will do x-rays and/or a bone scan. If there is suspicion that the underlying reason for the ulcer is poor circulation, then a non-invasive vascular study can be done. This test is to see if you have enough oxygen getting down to the area to heal the ulcer.

Ulcers occur due to different reasons, so it is very important to determine the underlying medical problem that caused the ulcer. There are essentially four main reasons people get ulcers on the foot.

Neuropathic: This is when a patient has loss of sensation in the feet. It is commonly seen in people with diabetes but it can be caused by other reasons such as chronic alcohol abuse. These ulcers are generally seen under weight bearing areas and often will begin as a callus or a corn.

Arterial: This type of ulcer is due to poor blood flow to the lower extremity. This type of ulcer can be very painful and are usually found on the tips of toes, lower legs, ankle, heel and top of the foot. They can very easily become infected.

Venous: This type of ulcer is due to compromised veins. Veins are the vessels that take fluid out of the legs and back up to the heart. Veins have small valves that allow blood to flow only one way, back up to the heart. The valves normally block the tendency for gravity to pull the blood back down to the legs. Sometimes the valves leak or cease to work at all. If the valves do not work, then the fluid pools down in the legs, causing swelling. This swelling leads to increase pressure in the venous system, producing discoloration of the leg and eventually this lead to ulceration. They are commonly seen around the inside of the ankle and are slow to heal.

Decubitus: This type of ulcer is caused by excessive prolonged pressure on one area of the foot. The most common place to see this type of ulcer is in a person confined to bed and they occur on the backs of the heels.

The best thing you can do for an ulcer is to have it looked at by your doctor, as soon as you can. The earlier that the ulcer is treated, the better chance you have at healing it.

The first thing that will be done is to inspect the wound. The doctor is looking for signs of infection, location of the wound, the color of the tissue in the wound. This is all done to determine the best treatment for that wound. Often the doctor will refer you to another specialist, such as a vascular doctor, to check your circulation. If you are a diabetic, he will want to consult with your diabetes doctor, to make sure that your blood sugar is under control. Once the cause of the ulcer is determined and all the necessary referrals are made, treatment of the ulcer can begin. The treatment will be tailored to the individual ulcer and it is often difficult to predict how long it will take an ulcer to heal. Ulcer care is best treated by a team approach, involving a few different types of doctors.

Yes. The best prevention is treating the underlying cause of the ulcer. That means if you are a diabetic, check your blood sugar daily and inspect your feet every day. If the reason for your ulcer is due to swelling in the legs, then you need to wear support stockings and keep your feet elevated as much as possible.

Ulcers can be a very debilitating problem, causing pain and disability. The best treatment is preventing the ulcer from ever occurring. If it does occur, have it checked immediately by your doctor.

1360 West 6th Street
Suite 150 West Bldg.
San Pedro, CA 90732
(310) 548-1191