Vascular ulcers are wounds on your skin that develop because of problems with blood circulation. These can take a very long time to heal and may need specialized care. The most common type of vascular ulcer is a venous ulcer. Also called a stasis ulcer, these happen because of circulatory problems that slow down blood exiting your feet and legs.
Vascular ulcers are wounds on your skin that develop because of problems with blood circulation. They are most common on your limbs — especially your lower legs and feet — but can also develop elsewhere on your body. These wounds can take a very long time to heal and may need specialized treatment, including surgery.
Vascular ulcers can have two different causes. One is from poor circulation in your arteries, which provide nutrients and oxygen to the body. The other type of vascular ulcer is caused by poor circulation in your veins, which takes blood and waste products from the body and returns them to the heart. The most common type of vascular ulcer is a venous ulcer.
Vascular ulcers are very common, especially as people age. About 1% of adults in the U.S. have a vascular ulcer. For adults over the age of 65, it can be between 3% and 5%.
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Vascular ulcers can have several negative impacts on your life. These include:
The symptoms of a vascular ulcer depend on what caused it. It's common for multiple causes to happen at once because so many underlying conditions for different types of ulcers are related.
The following symptoms are often present before venous ulcers form.
Stasis ulcers tend to have these symptoms:
The following symptoms tend to happen before an arterial ulcer forms.
Arterial ulcers tend to have the following symptoms:
Vascular ulcers tend to happen to older people or those who have certain health problems, especially problems related to the heart and circulatory system. The related conditions include:
Vascular ulcers can also happen when something other than a disease or condition disrupts blood flow. Examples of this include:
Vascular ulcers can typically be grouped by their cause. However, it's common for multiple conditions to cause an ulcer. An example of this is how diabetes can cause vascular ulcers.
A healthcare provider can quickly diagnose a vascular ulcer by examining it. They will look closely at the ulcer and may feel the area around it, checking for specific symptoms.
However, your provider will also want to diagnose whatever caused the ulcer. Parts of their examination of the wound will help them do this, but they will also order certain tests to help them fully understand the cause, mainly because vascular ulcers can have multiple causes and many of those causes can be connected.
Your healthcare provider or a specialist will do the following:
In many cases, it's possible to heal a vascular ulcer. However, the likelihood of healing the ulcer depends on how severe it has become, so early treatment of vascular ulcers is critical to a good outcome.
It's also essential to address the underlying problem that caused the ulcer. Your provider will likely recommend not just care for the ulcer but also for underlying health problems you have. Some of their recommendations will involve lifestyle changes that will help reduce your risk of another ulcer. The changes should also help improve your quality of life overall.
Vascular ulcers may be treated in a variety of ways, depending on how severe they are and what caused them.
Medications that may be used include:
Bandages and different types of wearable items are commonly used to treat vascular ulcers. These should only be used as your healthcare provider directs you. Misusing these can make a vascular ulcer much worse rather than better.
Advanced methods for treating vascular ulcers, especially ones that are larger or are taking longer to heal, may also be used.
If you are at risk of developing a vascular ulcer, there are things you can do to protect your health and avoid a vascular ulcer. This is especially true if you have diabetes or any other condition that means you have limited or no feeling in your feet.
If you have a vascular ulcer, your provider can guide you on how to care for it. They will likely advise you on any of the following:
Side effects of treatment depend on which treatments are used. Your healthcare provider can explain the possible complications or side effects relevant to you based on your treatment plan.
Vascular ulcers can take weeks or even months to heal under normal circumstances. However, if cared for properly — including closely following the treatment plan provided to you — wounds should heal faster than expected. Your provider can tell you what to expect based on your specific wound issue and can help you track your progress along the way.
There are some things you can do to reduce your risk of developing a vascular ulcer. They can also help improve ulcers you already have.
If you have a vascular ulcer or have had one in the past, you have an increased risk of developing another. Taking care of your health is the best way to delay a new one from forming. If you manage your health, you’re more likely to live longer overall and to have fewer health problems.
Conversely, not taking care of your health makes it more likely that a vascular ulcer — and your overall health — will get worse. In the most severe cases, not taking care of an ulcer and your health can lead to the need for amputation, and it can even lead to conditions that are deadly.
You should see a primary care provider at least once a year for a physical. This is key to the early detection of health problems, including those that can cause vascular ulcers.
You should also talk to your provider if you have any of the following:
If you have a vascular ulcer, you should go to the emergency room if it becomes infected and you develop certain symptoms.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Vascular ulcers are generally a sign of an underlying chronic health condition. While these conditions are serious, it is possible to manage them and keep on enjoying your life. Your healthcare provider can offer you guidance, resources and more, all of which can help you do what it takes to keep chronic conditions from interfering with how you want to live your life.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 06/23/2022.
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