Diagnosing Different Types Of Heel Ulcers

Guest Clinical Editor: Tamara D. Fishman, DPM

When a patient presents with an ulcer on the heel, one must perform an in-depth examination because distinctions among different types of ulcers can be subtle. Prompt, appropriate treatment is essential and it is also critical to assess predisposing risk factors and what can be done to help minimize these risks. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the following case study.
A 58-year-old Caucasian male had recently been hospitalized because he fell and broke his right hip. While he was in the hospital, the patient developed the condition on his right heel (as seen in the photo below). There are no clinical signs of infection or ischemia present on the right heel area. The patient’s past medical history is significant for chronic osteomyelitis in the right leg.

What Is The Differential Diagnosis?
1. Stage three pressure ulcer
2. Sickle cell ulcer
3. Venous stasis ulceration
4. Gangrene
5. Unstageable pressure sore

Diagnostic Answers
1. A stage three pressure ulcer is not the correct answer because it is difficult to stage a pressure sore with eschar formation. Remember, staging systems were designed to describe the depth of tissue involvement. When there is eschar, it is difficult to accurately assess the depth of tissue involvement.
A stage three pressure sore is a full-thickness skin loss involving damage or necrosis of subcutaneous tissue that may extend down to but not through underlying fascia. The ulcer presents as a deep crater with or without undermining of adjacent tissue.
2. A sickle cell ulcer is not the correct answer. These ulcers are shallow and usually develop in relation to a sickle cell crisis. In terms of treatment, one would focus on addressing the sickle cell crisis as soon as possible. Daily wound care, maintaining a moist environment and preventing infection are important factors in promoting wound healing and closure.
3. A venous stasis ulceration is not the correct answer. You will usually see these types of ulcers on the medial aspect of the leg. Characteristically, these wounds present with edema, stasis pigmentation, dermatitis and ulceration. The venous stasis ulcer is primarily due to sequelae of chronic venous insufficiency.
4. Gangrene is not the correct answer. Gangrene is necrosis or death of a tissue, usually as the result of ischemia. Although this ulceration appears black in color as gangrene typically presents, the above ulceration is not caused by ischemia.
5. An unstageable pressure sore is the correct answer. This pressure sore is unstageable due to the accompanying eschar. One may stage the pressure sore after removing the eschar. It is crucial for you to assess the patient’s wound by identifying the etiology, his or her past medical history and any prior treatments to date. Remember, blanching erythema at a pressure point is an early sign that a pressure ulcer may be forming. This ulceration is due to continued pressure over a bony prominence. It results from ischemic hypoxia of the tissues, owing to prolonged pressure on a body part.

How Should You Treat Unstageable Pressure Sores?
A pressure ulcer is defined by the Merck Manual (17th Edition) as ischemic necrosis, an ulceration of tissues overlying a bony prominence that has been subjected to prolonged pressure against an external object (e.g., bed, wheelchair, cast, splint or other object). Pressure sores are also commonly referred to as bedsores, decubitus ulcers and trophic ulcers.

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