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Caring for chronic wounds: A knowledge update

By: Patricia A. Slachta, PhD, RN, ACNS-BC, CWOCN

Wound care has come a long way in just a few decades. With our expanded knowledge of wound healing and recent advances in treatment, we’re now able to assess wounds more accurately, recognize wound-related problems sooner, provide better interventions, and reduce morbidity.

To bring you up to date on current evidence-based wound management, this article focuses on assessing patients with chronic wounds, optimizing wound healing with effective wound-bed preparation, and selecting an appropriate dressing.

Wound chronicity and cause

Developing an appropriate plan of care hinges on conducting a thorough, accurate evaluation of both the patient and the wound. The first step is to determine whether the wound is acute or chronic.
•    A chronic wound is one that fails to heal within a reasonable time—usually
3 months.
•    An acute wound heals more quickly, causing minimal functional loss in the part of the body with the wound.
Identifying the cause of the wound also is essential. If the wound etiology is unknown, explore the patient’s medical history (including medication history) for clues to possible causes. Also review the patient’s history for conditions that could impede wound healing. (See What factors hamper healing? by clicking the PDF icon above)
Other important aspects of assessment include evaluating the patient’s nutritional status, quantifying the level of pain (if present), and gauging the patient’s self-care abilities.

General physical appearance

Conduct a general head-to-toe physical examination, focusing on the patient’s height, weight, and skin characteristics.

Height, weight, and weight trend

On admission, the patient’s height and weight should be measured to ensure appropriate nutritional and pharmacologic management. After a weight gain or loss, various factors may complicate wound healing. For instance, involuntary weight loss and protein-energy malnutrition may occur in both acute-care and long-term-care patients.

Especially note trends in your patient’s weight. For a long-term-care patient, a 5% weight loss over 30 days or a 10% loss over 180 days is considered involuntary. Arrange for a nutritional consult for any patient with an involuntary weight loss, as adequate nutrition is essential for general well-being and wound healing. (See A wound on the mend by clicking the PDF icon above.)

Skin color

Evaluate the patient’s skin color in light of ethnic background. If you note erythema—especially on a pressure point over a bony prominence—examine this area carefully for nonblanching erythema. Keep in mind that darkly pigmented skin doesn’t show such erythema and subsequent blanching, yet the patient may still be in jeopardy. So in dark-skinned patients, check for differences in skin color, temperature, or firmness compared to adjacent tissue; these differences may signify skin compromise.

Skin texture and turgor

Generally, healthy skin feels smooth and firm and has an even surface and good turgor (elasticity). To test turgor, gently grasp and pull up a fold of skin on a site such as the anterior chest below the clavicle. Does the skin return to place almost immediately after you release it, or does it stand up (“tent”)? Tenting indicates dehydration. But keep in mind that skin loses elasticity with age, so elderly patients normally have decreased turgor.

Skin temperature

With normal circulatory status, the skin is warm and its temperature is similar bilaterally. Areas of increased warmth or coolness suggest infection or compromised circulation. Be sure to check the temperature of skin surrounding the wound.

Wound assessment

Proper wound assessment can significantly influence patient outcome. Measure the wound carefully and document the condition of the wound bed. Remember that accurate descriptions are essential for guiding ongoing wound care. Repeat wound measurement and wound-bed assessment at least weekly, after the wound bed has been cleaned and debrided.

Keep in mind that assessing a chronic wound can be challenging. Wounds commonly have irregular shapes that can change quickly. Also, the multiple clinicians caring for the same patient may each describe the wound a bit differently.

Wound location

Note the precise anatomic location of the wound, as this can influence the wound care plan. A venous ulcer on the lower leg, for instance, requires different care than an arterial ulcer in the same site or a pressure ulcer on the ischium.

Circumference and depth

Use a paper or plastic measuring device to measure wound circumference and depth in centimeters (cm) or millimeters (mm). To promote accurate assessment of healing, be sure to use the same reference points each time you measure the wound.

You can use several methods to measure circumference. The most commonly used method of measurement is done in the head to toe direction. Measure the wound at its greatest length in that direction & measure the width at a 90 degree angle, at the widest point of the wound. Then multiply these two measurements (greatest length x greatest width) to obtain the total wound area. Although such linear measurements are imprecise, they yield gross information relative to wound healing when repeated over time.

Classify wound depth as partial thickness or full thickness.
•    Partial-thickness wounds are limited to the skin layers and don’t penetrate the dermis. They usually heal by reepithelialization, in which epidermal cells regenerate and cover the wound. Abrasions, lacerations, and blisters are examples of partial-thickness wounds.
•    Full-thickness wounds involve tissue loss below the dermis.
(Note: Pressure ulcers usually are classified by a four-stage system and diabetic foot ulcers by a grading system. Both systems are beyond this article’s scope.)
Measure and record wound depth based on the deepest area of tissue loss. To measure depth, gently place an appropriate device (such as a foam-tipped applicator) vertically in the deepest part of the wound, and mark the applicator at the patient’s skin level. Then measure from the end of the applicator to the mark to obtain depth.

Surrounding skin and tissue

Inspect for and document any erythema, edema, or ecchymosis within 4 cm of the wound edges, and reevaluate for these signs frequently. Because compromised skin near the wound is at risk for breakdown, preventive measures may be necessary.

Appearance of wound-bed tissue

Document viable tissue in the wound bed as granulation, epithelial, muscle, or subcutaneous tissue. Granulation tissue is connective tissue containing multiple small blood vessels, which aid rapid healing of the wound bed; appearing red or pink, it commonly looks shiny and granular. Epithelial tissue consists of regenerated epidermal cells across the wound bed; it may be shiny and silvery.

Check for nonviable tissue (also called necrotic, slough, or fibrin slough tissue), which may impede wound healing. It may vary in color from black or tan to yellow, and may adhere firmly or loosely to the wound bed. (See Picturing a necrotic wound by clicking the PDF icon above.)

Be sure to document the range of colors visible throughout the wound. Identify the color that covers the largest percentage of the wound bed. This color—and its significance—guide dressing selection.

Wound exudate

Document the amount, color, and odor of exudate (drainage) in the wound. Exudate with high protease levels and low growth factor levels may impede healing.

If the wound is covered by an occlusive dressing, assess exudate after the wound has been cleaned. Describe the amount of exudate as none, minimal, moderate, or heavy.

Describe exudate color as serous, serosanguineous, sanguineous, or purulent. Serous exudate is clear and watery, with no debris or blood present. Serosanguineous exudate is clear, watery, and tinged pink or pale red, denoting presence of blood. Sanguineous exudate is bloody, indicating active bleeding. Purulent exudate may range from yellow to green to brown or tan.

Describe wound odor as absent, faint, moderate, or strong. Note whether the odor is present only during dressing removal, if it disappears after the dressing is discarded, or if it permeates the room.

Wound edges

Wound edges indicate the epithelialization trend and suggest the possible cause and chronicity of the wound. The edges should attach to the wound bed. Edges that are rolled (a condition called epibole) indicate a chronic wound, in which epithelial cells are unable to adhere to a moist, healthy wound bed and can’t migrate across and resurface the wound.

Undermining and tracts

Gently probe around the wound edges and in the wound bed to check for undermining and tracts. Undermining, which may occur around the edges, presents as a space between the intact skin and wound bed (resembling a roof over part of the wound). It commonly results from shear forces in conjunction with sustained pressure. A tract, or tunnel, is a channel extending from one part of the wound through subcutaneous tissue or muscle to another part.

Measure the depth of a tract or undermining by inserting an appropriate device into the wound as far as it will go without forcing it. Then mark the skin on the outside where you can see or feel the applicator tip. Document your findings based on a clock face, with 12 o’clock representing the patient’s head and 6 o’clock denoting the feet. For instance, you might note “2.0-cm undermining from 7:00 to 9:00 position.”

Pain level

Ask the patient to quantify the level of pain caused by the wound, using the pain scale designated by your facility. Find out which pain-management techniques have relieved your patient’s pain in the past; as appropriate, incorporate these into a pain-management plan. Reevaluate the patient’s pain level regularly.

Wound-bed preparation

An evolving science, wound-bed preparation is crucial for minimizing or removing barriers to healing. The goal is to minimize factors that impair healing and maximize the effects of wound care. The key elements of wound-bed preparation are controlling bioburden and maintaining moisture balance. (For online resources on wound-bed preparation and other wound-care topics, see Where to get more information by clicking the PDF icon above.)

Controlling bioburden

Necrotic tissue and exudate harbor bacteria. A wound’s bioburden—the number of contaminating microbes—contributes to poor healing. All chronic wounds are considered contaminated or colonized, but not necessarily infected. In a colonized wound, healing is impeded as bacteria compete for nutrients; also, bacteria have harmful byproducts. To control bioburden, the wound must be cleaned and necrotic tissue must be debrided.

Cleaning the wound. Clean the wound before assessing it and applying a dressing. Use a noncytotoxic agent (typically, potable water, normal saline irrigating solution, or an appropriate wound-cleaning agent). Anti­septic solutions generally aren’t recommended for wound irrigation or dressings because they’re toxic to fibroblasts and other wound-repairing cells. If you must use such a solution, make sure it’s well diluted.

To ensure gentle cleaning or irrigation, pour solution over the wound bed or gently flush the wound with solution (using a 60-mL catheter-tip syringe) until the drainage clears. Know that pressurized irrigation techniques and whirlpool therapy aren’t recommended for wound cleaning because they disturb cell proliferation in the wound bed.

Debriding the wound. Debridement removes slough and necrotic tissue. Nonselective debridement techniques remove any type of tissue within the wound bed, whereas selective methods remove only necrotic tissue. (See Wound debridement techniques by clicking the PDF icon below.)

Maintaining moisture balance

To maintain moisture balance in the wound bed, you must manage exudate and keep the wound bed moist. The proper dressing (which may stay in place for days or longer) supports moist wound healing and exudate management. To minimize fluid pooling, a drain may be inserted into the wound. Negative-pressure wound therapy also may aid removal of excess exudate.

Choosing an appropriate dressing

The wound dressing plays a major role in maintaining moisture balance. Dressing selection is challenging because of the large number and variety of dressings available. Each product has specific actions, benefits, and drawbacks, so determining which dressing best suits the patient’s needs is a multifaceted process.

Dressing choice depends on such factors as wound type and appearance, exudate, presence or absence of pain, and required dressing change frequency. (See Dressings Options by clicking the PDF icon above.)

In a traditional dressing, gauze is applied in layers. The initial (contact) layer in the wound bed absorbs drainage and wicks it to the next layer; most often, this layer consists of woven cotton gauze or synthetic gauze. Remove the gauze gently, because it may be stuck to the wound or incision (especially if the gauze is cotton). For easier removal, moisten the dressing with normal saline solution to loosen it.

With a traditional dressing, the cover layer or secondary dressing is an abdominal pad with a “no-strike-through” layer next to the outside of the dressing. Be aware that wet-to-dry dressings are highly discouraged for their nonselective debriding effect and inability to provide a moist wound bed.

Reassess the patient’s wound at least weekly (after preparing the wound bed and dressing the wound) to determine healing progress. Keep in mind that wound-care management is a collaborative effort. Once you’ve assessed the patient, discuss your findings and subsequent wound management with other members of the team.

Wound care wisdom

Getting wiser about wound care will help your patients achieve good outcomes. Poor wound healing can be frustrating to patients, family members, and healthcare providers alike. Chronic wounds may necessitate lifestyle changes and lead to severe physical consequences ranging from infection to loss of function and even death. By performing careful assessment, tailoring patients’ wound care to wound etiology, and using evidence-based protocols to manage wounds, you can promote speedier wound healing, help lower morbidity, and improve quality of life.

Selected references
Bryant RA, Nix DP. Acute and Chronic Wounds: Current Management Concepts. 4th ed. St. Louis, MO: Mosby; 2011.

Gardener SE, Frantz R, Hillis SL, Park H, Scherubel M. Diagnostic validity of semiquantitative swab cultures. Wounds. 2007;(19)2:31-38.

Krasner DL, Rodeheaver GT, Sibbald RG. Chronic Wound Care: A Clinical Source Book for Healthcare Professionals. 4th ed. Wayne, PA: HMP Communications; 2007.
Langemo DK, Brown G. Skin fails too: acute, chronic, and end-stage skin failure. Adv Skin Wound Care. 2006;19(4):206-211.

Langemo DK, Anderson J, Hanson D, Hunter S, Thompson P. Measuring wound length, width, and area: which technique? Adv Skin Wound Care. 2008;21:42-45.

Milne C, Armand OC, Lassie M. A comparison of collagenase to hydrogel dressings in wound debridement. Wounds. 2010:22(11):270-274.

National Pressure Ulcer Advisory Panel and European Pressure Ulcer Advisory Panel. Prevention and Treatment of Pressure Ulcers: Clinical Practice Guideline. Washington, DC: National Pressure Ulcer Advisory Panel; 2009.

Ovington LG. Hanging wet-to-dry dressings out to dry. Adv Skin Wound Care. 2002;15(2):79-86.

Sibbald RG, Coutts P, Woo KY. Reduction of bacterial burden and pain in chronic wounds using a new polyhexamethylene biguanide antimicrobial foam dressing—clinical trial results. Adv Skin Wound Care. 2011;24(2):78-84.

Solway DR, Consalter M, Levinson DJ. Microbial cellulose wound dressing in the treatment of skin tears in the frail elderly. Wounds. 2010:22(1):17-19.

Wound Ostomy and Continence Nurses Society. Guideline for Prevention and Management of Pressure Ulcers. Mt. Laurel, NJ: Author; 2010

Patricia A. Slachta is a Clinical Nurse Specialist at The Queens Medical Center in Honolulu, Hawaii and an adjunct nursing instructor at the Technical College of the Lowcountry in Beaufort, South Carolina.

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3 Thoughts to “Caring for chronic wounds: A knowledge update”

  1. Very informative article. I have a chronic wound that I can see little change or improvement in. I am going to continue to follow these steps and will let you know the progress. Thank you.

  2. Philsbert Georges

    This information is priceless. Great work to display such great patient centered information.

  3. mitch derosa

    thank you never knew that a moist bandage was so critical

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