Table of contents
This brochure has been developed by Jackson Heart Clinic to help you understand Venous Ulcers. The cardiologists and staff know that an informed patient can better participate in decisions that impact health care. Working with you, we can better diagnose your problem and start treatment that will help prevent venous ulcers from becoming worse and help you enjoy life as fully as possible.
What are venous ulcers?
Venous ulcers, also called stasis ulcers are shallow wounds, open sores or ulcerations that usually occur in the lower legs and impact one of every 100 individuals in the U.S. The most common cause of venous ulcers is impaired circulation in the veins of the legs, which is also called venous insufficiency and affects about 40% of the entire US population. Venous ulcers are a complication of venous insufficiency, and they tend to be recurrent (come back even after healed), with an open sore that may last from a week to years.
Ulcers represent around 80% of chronic leg complications. It’s important for patients to know what to look for and how to get treated. The quality of one’s life can be significantly better with a focused delivery of care and treatment of the ulcers.
-D. Russell Young, M.D.
Who is at risk?
You are more likely to have venous ulcers if you have the following:
- Age: Older adults (women are affected more often than men)
- Gender: Women who have had many pregnancies
- Overweight or obese
- Tobacco use
- Work requires many hours of standing or heavy lifting
- Previous leg injuries
- A personal or family history of varicose veins
- A history of deep vein thrombosis (DVT)
- A history of phlebitis (inflammation of blood vessels)
- Immobility (cannot walk or exercise)
- Impaired calf muscles (from injury or disease)
- Impaired veins or vein valves (inherited or other causes)
What causes venous ulcers?
As mentioned, venous ulcers occur because of insufficient venous circulation.To fully understand venous ulcers, it is important to understand the anatomy and function of the venous system. Basically, the venous system consists of a network of veins that includes small veins that are close to the surface of the skin (superficial veins), larger veins that are located deep in the leg tissue (deep veins) and additional veins that connect the superficial veins to the deep veins (perforator veins). Normally, valves within veins open and close to help move blood back up to the heart. Healthy valves keep blood moving in one direction. When valves become damaged or diseased and do not close well, it causes blood to move in both directions and also causes pressure to build up in the veins. Movement of blood in the wrong direction is known as venous reflux.
Poorly functioning veins and valves (particularly in the legs) can cause increased pressure on the walls of the veins and pooling of blood in the lower legs. This can damage veins, the valves in the veins and the surrounding tissue in the legs. Ultimately, it can cause tissue to break down and open sores (ulcers) to form.
The calf muscles in the legs also assist the work of the veins to move blood back toward the heart, so if a person is not moving well or has damaged calf muscle, it can also impact blood flow in the veins. If a person has blockage or a clot in a deep leg vein, it can cause vein valves to fail and may completely block the vein.
What are the symptoms of venous ulcers?
The following symptoms can be related to venous ulcers:
- Aching, stinging, burning or pain in the lower legs
- Swelling of lower legs (that gets better when legs are elevated)
- Feelings of tiredness, heaviness or cramping in the lower legs
- Skin discoloration (dark red or purple) or darkness in the lower legs
- Scaling, flakey, or hard, thick skin on the lower legs
- Enlarged and twisted veins close to the surface
- Varicose veins or spider veins
- Broken skin or open sores (ulcers) that tend to recur
Complications of venous ulcers
A venous ulcer can become infected with pus draining from it. It may also have a foul odor. When infected, the surrounding area is likely to become more red and tender. If not treated effectively, complications can result in the entire leg being infected. Although amputation is rarely needed, it may be necessary to save one’s life. This is why both medical treatment and good home care is important for those who have venous ulcers.
Having knowledge of the symptoms related to ulcers, being proactive with scheduling an appointment, and taking the appropriate steps for treatment and close follow-up, many complications, including the risk of amputation, can be avoided.
-D. Russell Young, M.D.
How are venous ulcers diagnosed?
Venous ulcers are diagnosed primarily through physical examination as well as a review of your medical history and symptoms. Your physician may also order tests to determine whether or not your venous circulation is impaired. Leg ulcers may occur for other reasons, so an accurate medical diagnosis is very important to determine the best treatment for you. The following tests may be ordered:
- Venous ultrasound testing to examine the vein valves and how well they function
- Venogram (x-ray of the veins) with dye injected into a vein in the foot and pictures taken to determine blood flow
- CT scan to look for narrowing or blockage in the veins
- Other tests as needed
We see lots of leg ulcers that are initially treated as arterial wounds but, in fact, are secondary to chronic venous insufficiency. Being able to recognize chronic venous insufficiency early in the wound care process is of vital importance.
What are the treatments for venous ulcers?
If you have been diagnosed with venous ulcers, the major goal of treatment is to improve blood circulation in your legs. A combination of lifestyle changes and medical treatment are very effective in treating venous ulcers. Follow your cardiologist’s instructions to heal the ulcers and prevent both recurrence and serious complications.
Diseases of the venous system are extremely prevalent. One of the more satisfying things for me is to be able to help individuals who have long suffered from symptoms of undiagnosed vascular disease. That’s to say, improving their quality of life.-J. Gray Bennett, M.D.
Other treatments that may be ordered by your doctor include:
Good wound care for venous ulcers is a major part of treatment to promote healing and prevent infections, complications and recurrence. The doctors and staff at Jackson Heart Clinic will show you how to take care of the open wound. There are different types of dressings that may be recommended, and they can be purchased at most pharmacies or other stores. In general, a lightweight, non-stick gauze dressing or other material will be recommended to be placed right over the wound, then a larger bandage will be placed on top to keep it in place.
- Keep the wound clean and covered with a bandage all of the time, except when bathing or cleaning the wound.
- Change the dressing at least every day. You may need to change it more often if drainage seeps through or the bandage gets wet.
- Clean the wound thoroughly before you dress it. Use a mild soap and water.
- Make sure to also keep the skin around the wound clean.
- Wear a compression stocking over the dressing and bandage to help with swelling and to improve blood flow to your legs. This will also help keep the bandage in place.
- Keep alert to signs of infection, such as increased drainage, a bad smell, increased redness, heat, swelling or pain. If you feel that the wound is worse or becoming infected, contact our office right away for further instructions.
Compression stockings are proven to help venous circulation and are usually required for treatment. They should be worn always except for bathing and sleeping.
Lifestyle changes can help prevent or treat venous ulcers. Elevating legs above heart level or preventing them from hanging down can help circulation in your legs. For example, pillows under your legs when in bed or propping legs up when sitting will really help keep blood from pooling in your legs. If you have work that requires you to be on your feet a lot, take breaks and elevate your feet and legs as often as possible. If heavy lifting is required, ask for help.
Exercise can help improve blood flow and venous circulation. Your cardiologist will discuss how much exercise and what types of exercise will be best for your particular medical situation.
Weight loss can be helpful in the treatment of venous ulcers. If you need help with that, ask your physician for guidance.
Medication may be needed to treat infection or to help heal the ulcer.
Surgery may be an option if your physician finds that it is needed to prevent further problems. Minimally invasive techniques (such as the Venefit™ procedure, described below) are available on an outpatient basis to treat impaired veins.
Other types of surgery such as vein ablation, vein stripping, angioplasty or stents may be required. Skin grafting may also be needed for very hard, difficult to heal or deep ulcers. In that case, more detailed information will be given to you by your cardiologist to help you understand your treatment options.
The Venefit Procedure™ is performed by your cardiologist using ultrasound and positioning a catheter (small tube) through the skin into the diseased vein. The catheter is powered by radio frequency energy (RF) that produces heat within the vein wall to shrink and close off the vein. Once that vein is closed, the body will naturally re-route blood to other healthy veins.
A simple bandage will be placed over the site after the procedure and compression stockings may be recommended to help the healing process. Your cardiologist may also recommend walking, but may also caution against standing for extended periods of time or to avoid strenuous exercise for a while. Usually patients can resume normal activities within a few days after the procedure.
The procedure can be done as an outpatient, under local anesthesia, and patients usually experience relief of symptoms in a short period of time. Additionally, closing off the diseased vein will ultimately have a positive cosmetic effect, reducing the size of diseased superficial veins and discoloration of the skin in that area.
As with any procedure, complications can occur and include bruising, blood clots, blood vessel perforation, infection and emboli (a blood clot that moves), nerve damage and others, but are infrequent. Complications are less frequent when the physician has performed many of these procedures and selects patients who are most likely to benefit (and does not select patients for the procedure who have contraindications, such as those patients who have existing clots in the vein to be treated).
When should I call my cardiologist?
Seek medical care when you first notice signs of venous insufficiency or a leg ulcer. Remember that the earlier it is treated, the less likely you will experience complications. Also, a small ulcer is much more likely to heal (and is more easily treated) than a large one! You should call/notify your cardiologist soon and schedule an appointment (or seek immediate care) if you experience any of the following or if your usual symptoms get worse:
- Increased or severe leg pain
- Increased redness and swelling
- Infection of a venous ulcer (pus draining, increased redness and swelling)
- Signs of a wound infection plus fever
Everyday ways to help your venous circulation:
There are many ways that you can help yourself live with venous insufficiency and/or venous ulcers failure. Start by making the lifestyle changes recommended by your cardiologist and ask questions about anything that you don’t understand.
- Exercise: Exercise according to your cardiologist’s instructions.
- Elevate legs: Avoid standing for long period of time and elevate your feet as much as possible.
- Conserve your energy: Be realistic and thoughtful about the level of activity that you can reasonably manage. Ask for help when needed (as when lifting heavy items) and make sure to get enough rest.
- Schedule regular follow-up visits with your cardiologist: Ongoing communication and regular check-ups with your cardiologist are important to prevent venous ulcers from becoming worse.
- Take medicine exactly as it was prescribed: This may be especially important if you are taking anticoagulant medications for prevention of blood clots. Ask questions if you don’t understand and always make sure that your cardiologist has a record of all medications that you take (prescription and over-the-counter).
- Prevent infections: Make sure that you practice good skin care always and effective wound care (if you have an ulcer). Washing your hands frequently is also important as a general health practice.
This brochure has provided thorough information about the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of venous ulcers. Although they can be serious and even life-threatening, medical treatment can decrease symptoms and improve quality of life. There are many treatment options, including simple changes that you can incorporate in your daily routine. With your new knowledge about venous ulcers, you can work with your cardiologist at Jackson Heart Clinic to develop treatment plans that work best for you and your unique needs. It is our goal for you to have the highest possible level of cardiovascular health!
Web-Based Patient Resources
American College of Cardiology: CardioSmart www.cardiosmart.org
For information related specifically to venous ulcers:
WebMD: Information about venous insufficiency
Venous Ulcers: Self-care (May 3, 2016). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine. Accessed 5/30/2016 from:
Diseases of the venous system are extremely prevalent. One of the more satisfying things for me is to be able to help individuals who have long suffered from symptoms of undiagnosed vascular disease. That’s to say, improving their quality of life.
-J. Gray Bennett, M.D.