Pressure ulcers are a serious issue. In addition to the above diagnoses, older adults are very susceptible to skin problems as a result of normal aging. The combination of thin skin (more prone to damage), low body weight (less cushion over the bones), decreased nutrition (poor nourishment to skin), less movement during sleep, and slower skin repair (by cells if skin is broken) places older adults at increased risk for pressure ulcers. Furthermore, diabetes and vascular diseases (common in older adults) decrease the blood supply to the skin placing it at high risk for damage. Finally, decreased mental capacity/dementia can make an older person unable to consider or perform preventative measures against pressure ulcers.
A pressure sore does not just occur out of "thin air"; it is generally preceded by illness or disease associated with weakness and debility requiring significant time spent in bed or in a wheelchair. If a person is unable to move around to shift their weight, or is not regularly turned in bed, excessive pressure on the skin over bony areas causes decreased circulation to that area and eventually skin breakdown. Pressure alone is not the only cause of sores; incontinence, shearing or friction (i.e. during transfers) are also common contributors. Some important means of prevention include: turning at night every 2 hours, performing regular pressure relief/weight shifting in wheelchair every hour, maintaining equipment (wheelchair cushions), keeping good hygiene, and eating a well-balanced diet. We stress these means of prevention with all of our newly spinal cord injured patients, and to individuals who are weak/debilitated at the hospital.
Pressure sores are graded on a scale from Stage I to Stage IV (most severe). I will be working with individuals whose sores have progressed to Stage III or IV; this means that the skin has been broken and the wound is very deep-- to the muscle or even the bone. After debridement of the wound (surgical cleaning) and/or "Flap Surgery" (which "transplants" a muscle from the lower leg over the existing wound), the patients require an extensive hospital stay. During the course of their stay, my role is to re-evaluate their current equipment (wheelchair, cushion, etc.) to ensure that it does not contribute to future sores. I can use a specialized computer system (Pressure Mapping System) to measure the pressure underneath each of the sitting bones of the pelvis. By placing a mat underneath the patient while they are seated on the cushion, I can immediately visualize on a computer the pressure differentials on the cushion to determine if it is the best option for the patient. [If you're interested in learning more about pressure mapping, check out: http://www.xsensor.com/medical-video.php. This is just one of many companies that have mapping systems available.] After I perform mapping, I can order a new cushion or modify their existing cushion. In addition, I will assess their current wheelchair for any repairs or changes that might decrease their seated pressures.
I'll be updating you on my switch to this new patient care area- and the great things I am learning and the challenges I am facing!