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What is a Varicose Ulcer?

By D. Jeffress
Updated May 17, 2024
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A varicose ulcer is a painful, bloody lesion that appears on the skin when underlying veins are unable to pump blood efficiently. Ulcers are very common in elderly people who suffer from age-related circulation problems, though certain health conditions such as deep vein thrombosis can lead to ulceration in younger patients. In the majority of cases, varicose ulcers are found on the shins, calves, or near the ankles. Treatment for varicose ulcers depends on their size and cause, but most patients are able to recover by regularly elevating and exercising their legs.

Veins in the legs and elsewhere in the body return used blood back to the heart so it can be oxygenated and recirculated. If a vein is affected by a clot or vascular constriction, blood pressure increases within the vessel and puts pressure on the walls. Eventually, blood begins to leak from the vein and form a stagnant pool in the surrounding tissue. When ulceration occurs near the skin, tissue damage and blood buildup form a dark red lesion.

A leg vein is likeliest to be affected by a varicose ulcer since veins in the lower extremities are relatively far from the heart. While veins in the upper extremities and torso are frequently elevated above the heart, leg veins must fight gravity to return blood. A clot somewhere along a vein or artery in the leg can lead to excess pressure and eventual ulceration. Obesity, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, and deep vein thrombosis can all contribute to the development of a varicose ulcer.

In most cases a varicose ulcer appears slowly over time. A person might notice a small patch of skin on his or her leg gradually turning darker. The skin might be dry and flaky, and developing ulcers often itch. Once a lesion begins to form, the spot becomes tender to the touch. In addition, an open ulcer can easily become infected, causing more pain, swelling, and inflammation. An individual who notices signs of a varicose ulcer should make an appointment with his or her doctor so it can be carefully inspected.

A physician can usually diagnose a varicose ulcer simply by examining it, but further tests are needed to look for an underlying cause. Blood tests, echocardiograms, and computerized tomography scans can help a doctor identify clots and other issues. Certain conditions, including severe deep vein thrombosis, necessitate immediate medical and surgical care to remedy before severe complications occur.

When a varicose ulcer is not a sign of a potentially serious condition, a patient is usually provided with information about home care. Elevating the leg and getting regular exercise helps improve circulation and shorten the healing time of an ulcer. A doctor may also suggest compressing the wound with a bandage or specialized leg wrap to stop an ulcer from growing larger. Lesions usually take several months to fully heal, but symptoms are usually resolved within a few weeks by following a doctor's orders.

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