ulcer is a type of wound that develops on the skin. A
venous skin ulcer is a shallow wound that occurs when
the leg veins don't return blood back toward the heart the way they should. This is called venous insufficiency. See a picture
of abnormal blood flow caused by venous insufficiency.
Venous skin ulcers are slow
to heal and often come back if you don't take steps to prevent them.
A venous skin ulcer is also called a stasis leg ulcer.
What causes venous skin ulcers?
Venous skin ulcers are caused by poor
blood circulation from the legs, such as from venous insufficiency. Your veins have
one-way valves that keep blood flowing toward the heart. In venous
insufficiency, the valves are damaged, and blood backs up and pools in the
vein. The blood may leak out of the vein and into the surrounding tissue. This
can lead to a breakdown of the tissue and an ulcer.
Veins that become blocked also may cause blood to pool, leading to
Some things can increase your risk of venous skin ulcers. These include:
There are two other types of skin ulcers that can happen on the lower leg or feet. They are different from venous skin ulcers.
Arterial skin ulcers are less common
than venous skin ulcers. They happen when artery disease is present
(sometimes in combination with venous disease). These ulcers tend to be
extremely painful. They are usually on the toes and feet.
Neuropathic skin ulcers are also known as
diabetic neuropathic ulcers. They occur in people who have
little or no sensation in their feet because of diabetic nerve damage.
What are the symptoms?
The first sign of a venous
skin ulcer is skin that turns dark red or purple over the area where the blood
is leaking out of the vein. The skin also may become thick, dry, and
Without treatment, an ulcer may form. The ulcer may be
painful. You also may have swollen and achy legs.
If the wound
becomes infected, the infection may cause an odor, and pus may drain from the
wound. The area around the wound also may be more tender and red.
Call your doctor when you first notice the signs
of a venous skin ulcer, because you may be able to prevent the ulcer from
forming. If an ulcer has formed, get treatment right away, because new and
smaller ulcers tend to heal faster than larger ones.
How are venous skin ulcers diagnosed?
will diagnose venous skin ulcers by asking questions about your health and
looking at your legs. Your doctor may also use
duplex Doppler ultrasound. This test shows how well
blood is moving through the lower leg.
Your doctor may use other
tests to check for problems related to venous skin ulcers or to recheck the
ulcer if it does not heal within a few weeks after the start of treatment.
How are they treated?
The first step involves improving blood circulation. To do this, you can:
Lift your legs above the level of your heart
as often as possible. For example, lie down and then prop up your legs with
Wear compression stockings or bandages. These help prevent
blood from pooling in your legs.
Walk daily. Walking helps your blood circulation.
To help your ulcer heal, your doctor may also remove dead tissue from the wound (debridement).
ulcer has healed, continue to wear compression stockings. Take them off only
when you bathe and sleep. Compression therapy helps your blood circulate and
helps prevent other ulcers from forming.
If your ulcer doesn't heal within a few months, your doctor may advise other treatment, such as:
Medicine to speed healing or get rid of an infection (antibiotics).
Skin grafting, which may be needed for deep or hard-to-heal ulcers.
Vein surgery, which may keep ulcers from coming back.
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The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) provides information
about the care of skin. You can locate a dermatologist in your
area by using their "Find a Dermatologist" tool. Or you can read the latest news in dermatology. "SPOT Skin Cancer" is the AAD's program to reduce deaths from melanoma. There is also a link called "Skin Conditions" that has information about many common skin problems.
Society for Vascular Surgery
633 North Saint Clair Street, 24th Floor
Chicago, IL 60611
VascularWeb is a Web site provided by the Society for Vascular
Surgery. This Web site provides information about vascular conditions for
patients and families. VascularWeb can help you learn about how to prevent and
treat vascular diseases, learn about vascular screening, and find a vascular
Burton CS, et al. (2008). Cutaneous changes in venous and lymphatic insufficiency. In K Wolff et al., eds., Fitzpatrick's Dermatology in General Medicine, 7th ed., pp. 1679–1686. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Habif TP (2010). Stasis dermatitis and venous ulceration: Postphlebitic syndromes section of Eczema and hand dermatitis. In Clinical Dermatology: A Color Guide to Diagnosis and Therapy, 5th ed., pp. 122–129. Edinburgh: Mosby Elsevier.
Katz DL, Friedman RSC (2008). Diet and wound healing. In Nutrition in Clinical Practice, 2nd ed., pp. 271–274. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Nelson EA, Jones J (2008). Venous leg ulcers, search date September 2007. Online version of BMJ Clinical Evidence: http://www.clinicalevidence.com.
Raju S, Neglen P (2009). Chronic venous insufficiency and varicose veins. New England Journal of Medicine, 360(22): 2319–2327.
Primary Medical Reviewer
E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer
Margaret Doucette, DO - Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Wound Care, Hyperbaric Medicine
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.