Aug 10, 2011 8:54 PM
For most people, a minor wound -- a blister from a new pair of shoes, for instance -- is nothing to worry about. It hurts and then goes away. But for some, sores or cuts just won't heal -- for months or even years. High blood sugar, circulation problems, smoking, peripheral neuropathy, aging, and malnutrition can all cause long-lasting wounds that don't heal.
"Chronic wounds are an awful and underappreciated problem," says Gerald Lazarus MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Wound Center and chief of dermatology at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore. "They're painful, ugly, and debilitating."
They can be socially isolating too. People are often ashamed of how the wounds look and -- in some cases -- how they smell, Lazarus says. Chronic wounds are also a sign of a potentially serious underlying condition that needs treatment.
Up to 2% of people in the U.S. have chronic wounds. If you have a wound that just won't heal, it's not enough to bandage it every day and hope it goes away. You need help. Here's what you should know about healing a chronic wound.
Doctors consider any sore that doesn't heal within six weeks to be a chronic wound. Although the wound clearly needs medical care itself, it's really a symptom of deeper health issue, Lazarus says.
"Healthy people don't get chronic wounds," Lazarus says. "You need to discover and treat the underlying problem that's causing them."
Some of the most common include:
Other factors can play a role in chronic wounds. The overuse of antibiotics, allergic reactions to wound dressings, and common drugs such as corticosteroids and NSAID pain relievers can affect wound healing.
Lazarus says that chronic wounds are a serious and growing concern in the U.S. Why? "I think the rise in obesity is the biggest problem," he tells WebMD. Obesity is related to the growth in diabetes. It also makes conditions such as chronic venous insufficiency worse.
Untreated, the consequences of chronic wounds can be serious. In the U.S., chronic wounds related to diabetes and skin ulcerations are the most common reason for foot and leg amputations. However, experts have a number of good treatments for chronic wounds.
Getting treatment quickly is crucial. "A lot of patients could be helped if they came to the physician earlier," says Lazarus. "Once a wound becomes chronic, it becomes much more difficult to heal."
If you have a chronic wound, you need expert care. Ask your doctor if there's a wound care center in your area. People with chronic wounds often need the collaboration of different experts, such as dermatologists, cardiologists, surgeons, diabetes experts, and others.
Healing a chronic wound may take a few different approaches. "If the wound isn't getting better or smaller after four weeks of treatment, you need to try something else," says Lazarus.
If you have a sore that just won't heal, don't wait to check in with your family doctor at your next physical. You need active, consistent medical care. The sooner you get help, the better your prognosis.