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What are Leg Ulcers?

By Rachel Burkot
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Leg ulcers are breaks in the layers of skin on the legs that can become inflamed. If they don’t heal, they are referred to as chronic leg ulcers, which most often affect older people and those with diabetes. Leg ulceration is caused mainly by poor blood circulation, but other causes include injuries, skin conditions, vascular diseases such as stroke and heart attack, tumors and infections. Diabetic leg ulcers form because of blood circulation issues and nerve damage.

When blood circulation leads to an ulcer in the legs, it is known as either an arterial leg ulcer or a venous leg ulcer. Arterial leg ulcers are less common, and symptoms include pain when the legs are resting, cold feet and legs and a white or blue coloring somewhere on the leg. These ulcers are caused by poor circulation due to the build-up of fat and cholesterol in the arteries. Arterial leg ulcers are also affected by smoking, arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, atherosclerosis and high blood pressure. To prevent this condition, do not smoke, maintain a healthy weight and diet, exercise often to improve blood circulation, do not wear shoes that are too small and keep the feet grounded on a hard surface so the blood flow can easily reach the legs.

Symptoms of venous leg ulcers include swelling of the leg, dry, itchy and raw skin, the presence of eczema and a lack of pain, unless the leg is infected. These ulcers are usually located on the inside of the leg, above the ankle, and are caused by the reverse flow of blood from the superficial to the deep veins. This can lead to varicose veins. A venous leg ulcer can be triggered by previous ulcers, pregnancy, obesity, fractures, blood clots, surgery and inflammation of the deep veins. Preventing venous leg ulcers involves regular exercise, walking to employ the calf muscles and restore proper blood flow, eating fruits and vegetables, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding sitting or standing for too long at one time and not crossing the legs too often.

People who believe they are at risk for developing a leg ulcer should examine their legs regularly for any discoloring or swelling. Doctors diagnose leg ulcers by inspecting the arteries and veins closely. Also, comparing the blood pressure in the legs to that in the arms can signify whether blood flow is restricted at all. Leg ulcer treatments include cleansing and dressing procedures, but more serious ulcers require therapy and sometimes even surgery.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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