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Leg Ulcers

Leg ulcers are unhealed sores or open wounds on the legs. Without treatment, these types of ulcers can keep recurring. This condition is most commonly caused by poor circulation, though it may be attributed to a variety of ailments. These wounds are also more common in women, but they can affect both men and women of any age. If they’re treated early, leg ulcers can improve without causing any further complications.

Causes of Leg Ulcers

The odds of developing leg ulcers increase with age, and they’re often hereditary — in other words, if your parents had leg ulcers, you’re more likely to develop them.

Some other causes of leg ulcers are:

Varicose veins, which are swollen and visible veins, are frequently associated with leg ulcers. And often, leg ulcers are a complication of untreated varicose veins. However, the two conditions aren’t always found together.

Symptoms of Leg Ulcers

The symptoms of leg ulcers can vary depending on their exact cause. Ulcers are often painful. But sometimes ulcers present with no pain this is due to nerve damage from mismanaged diabetes. A lack of pain is one reason why many patients misdiagnose themselves and fail to seek medical treatment.

It’s important to make an appointment with your doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • open sores
  • pus in the affected area
  • pain in the affected area
  • increasing wound size
  • leg swelling
  • enlarged veins
  • generalized pain or heaviness in the legs

Diagnosing Leg Ulcers

Your doctor will perform a physical examination combined with testing to diagnose your leg ulcers and determine their exact cause. Often times, your doctor will be able to differentiate between a leg ulcer and regular sore just by looking at it. They’ll likely order a variety of tests to determine the right treatment plan, including:

  • CT scan, which is an imaging scan that takes fine detail cross-sectional X-rays
  • MRI scan, which uses a powerful magnet and radio waves to create a detailed picture of the affected area
  • noninvasive vascular studies using ultrasound (the use of high-frequency sound waves to detect problems and blockages in the blood vessels)
  • X-rays

Treating Leg Ulcers

Treating leg ulcers is crucial to relieve pain, prevent infection, and to stop the wound from growing in size. If pus is draining from your ulcer, you likely have an infection. Infections are treated with antibiotics to avoid further complications. Compression bandages are also used to help ease swelling, close the wound, and prevent infection. Your doctor may also prescribe an ointment to apply to the ulcer.

In severe cases, your doctor may order orthotics, or braces, to help you walk better while preventing future ulcers. Pentoxifylline may be prescribed to improve the circulation in your legs.

Your doctor may also recommend aspirin to prevent blood clots in the legs, but it’s important that you don’t start any medication without first consulting your doctor.

Home Remedies

Along with medical treatment, your doctor may recommend home remedies to ease discomfort and assist in healing. First, it’s important to keep any wounds clean to prevent infection. Wash the wound with mild soap and water daily. Also, change any bandages and dressings at least once daily to keep the area dry, so it can heal. Your doctor will give you a specific routine to follow.

Other home remedies that may help with healing include:

  • wearing good walking shoes
  • getting regular, mild- to moderate-intensity exercise
  • during rest periods, elevating your legs

Never use home or alternative methods in lieu of traditional medical treatment without checking with your doctor. These remedies may very well be beneficial but they can also aggravate the condition, depending on the preparation and the stage of your ulcers.

Preventing Leg Ulcers

Since poor circulation is the most common cause of leg ulcers, it makes sense to control conditions that can cause poor circulation, like:

  • hypertension
  • diabetes
  • Raynaud’s disease

Staying healthy with a sensible diet and regular exercise can reduce your weight, thereby decreasing your risk of leg ulcers. Decreasing your sodium intake is also important. You can do this by:

  • using fresh foods, not packaged
  • reading nutrition labels and checking for sodium content  

Also, smoking increases your risk for ulcers. If you smoke, try to quit.

Outlook for Leg Ulcers

In most cases, treatment is effective in easing the symptoms of leg ulcers. If they’re not treated in a timely fashion, it’s possible that a leg ulcer can become infected. In severe cases, infection can spread to the bone. It’s essential to see your doctor as soon as you notice symptoms.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Kristeen Moore
Medically reviewed on: Jan 28, 2016: George Krucik, MD MBA

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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