Signs and symptoms

Chronic wound patients often report pain as dominant in their lives. It is recommended that healthcare providers handle the pain related to chronic wounds as one of the main priorities in chronic wound management (together with addressing the cause). Six out of ten venous leg ulcer patients experience pain with their ulcer, and similar trends are observed for other chronic wounds.

Persistent pain (at night, at rest, and with activity) is the main problem for patients with chronic ulcers. Frustrations regarding ineffective analgesics and plans of care that they were unable to adhere to were also identified.


In addition to poor circulation, neuropathy, and difficulty moving, factors that contribute to chronic wounds include systemic illnesses, age, and repeated trauma. Comorbid ailments that may contribute to the formation of chronic wounds include vasculitis (an inflammation of blood vessels), immune suppression, pyoderma gangrenosum, and diseases that cause ischemia. Immune suppression can be caused by illnesses or medical drugs used over a long period, for example steroids. Emotional stress can also negatively affect the healing of a wound, possibly by raising blood pressure and levels of cortisol, which lowers immunity.

What appears to be a chronic wound may also be a malignancy; for example, cancerous tissue can grow until blood cannot reach the cells and the tissue becomes an ulcer. Cancer, especially squamous cell carcinoma, may also form as the result of chronic wounds, probably due to repetitive tissue damage that stimulates rapid cell proliferation.

Another factor that may contribute to chronic wounds is old age. The skin of older people is more easily damaged, and older cells do not proliferate as fast and may not have an adequate response to stress in terms of gene upregulation of stress-related proteins. In older cells, stress response genes are overexpressed when the cell is not stressed, but when it is, the expression of these proteins is not upregulated by as much as in younger cells.

Comorbid factors that can lead to ischemia are especially likely to contribute to chronic wounds. Such factors include chronic fibrosis, atherosclerosis, edema, sickle cell disease, and arterial insufficiency-related illnesses.

Repeated physical trauma plays a role in chronic wound formation by continually initiating the inflammatory cascade. The trauma may occur by accident, for example when a leg is repeatedly bumped against a wheelchair rest, or it may be due to intentional acts. Heroin users who lose venous access may resort to 'skin popping', or injecting the drug subcutaneously, which is highly damaging to tissue and frequently leads to chronic ulcers. Children who are repeatedly seen for a wound that does not heal are sometimes found to be victims of a parent with Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a disease in which the abuser may repeatedly inflict harm on the child in order to receive attention.


Chronic wounds may affect only the epidermis and dermis, or they may affect tissues all the way to the fascia. They may be formed originally by the same things that cause acute ones, such as surgery or accidental trauma, or they may form as the result of systemic infection, vascular, immune, or nerve insufficiency, or comorbidities such as neoplasias or metabolic disorders. The reason a wound becomes chronic is that the body’s ability to deal with the damage is overwhelmed by factors such as repeated trauma, continued pressure, ischemia, or illness.

Though much progress has been accomplished in the study of chronic wounds lately, advances in the study of their healing have lagged behind expectations. This is partly because animal studies are difficult because animals do not get chronic wounds, since they usually have loose skin that quickly contracts, and they normally do not get old enough or have contributing diseases such as neuropathy or chronic debilitating illnesses. Nonetheless, current researchers now understand some of the major factors that lead to chronic wounds, among which are ischemia, reperfusion injury, and bacterial colonization.


Ischemia is an important factor in the formation and persistence of wounds, especially when it occurs repetitively (as it usually does) or when combined with a patient’s old age. Ischemia causes tissue to become inflamed and cells to release factors that attract neutrophils such as interleukins, chemokines, leukotrienes, and complement factors.

While they fight pathogens, neutrophils also release inflammatory cytokines and enzymes that damage cells. One of their important jobs is to produce Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) to kill bacteria, for which they use an enzyme called myeloperoxidase. The enzymes and ROS produced by neutrophils and other leukocytes damage cells and prevent cell proliferation and wound closure by damaging DNA, lipids, proteins, the extracellular matrix (ECM), and cytokines that speed healing. Neutrophils remain in chronic wounds for longer than they do in acute wounds, and contribute to the fact that chronic wounds have higher levels of inflammatory cytokines and ROS. Since wound fluid from chronic wounds has an excess of proteases and ROS, the fluid itself can inhibit healing by inhibiting cell growth and breaking down growth factors and proteins in the ECM.

Bacterial colonization

Since more oxygen in the wound environment allows white blood cells to produce ROS to kill bacteria, patients with inadequate tissue oxygenation, for example those who suffered hypothermia during surgery, are at higher risk for infection. The host’s immune response to the presence of bacteria prolongs inflammation, delays healing, and damages tissue. Infection can lead not only to chronic wounds but also to gangrene, loss of the infected limb, and death of the patient.

Like ischemia, bacterial colonization and infection damage tissue by causing a greater number of neutrophils to enter the wound site. In patients with chronic wounds, bacteria with resistances to antibiotics may have time to develop. In addition, patients that carry drug resistant bacterial strains such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) have more chronic wounds.

Growth factors and proteolytic enzymes

Chronic wounds also differ in makeup from acute wounds in that their levels of proteolytic enzymes such as elastase. and matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) are higher, while their concentrations of growth factors such as Platelet-derived growth factor and Keratinocyte Growth Factor are lower.

Since growth factors (GFs) are imperative in timely wound healing, inadequate GF levels may be an important factor in chronic wound formation. In chronic wounds, the formation and release of growth factors may be prevented, the factors may be sequestered and unable to perform their metabolic roles, or degraded in excess by cellular or bacterial proteases.

Chronic wounds such as diabetic and venous ulcers are also caused by a failure of fibroblasts to produce adequate ECM proteins and by keratinocytes to epithelialize the wound. Fibroblast gene expression is different in chronic wounds than in acute wounds.

Though all wounds require a certain level of elastase and proteases for proper healing, too high a concentration is damaging. Leukocytes in the wound area release elastase, which increases inflammation, destroys tissue, proteoglycans, and collagen, and damages growth factors, fibronectin, and factors that inhibit proteases. The activity of elastase is increased by human serum albumin, which is the most abundant protein found in chronic wounds. However, chronic wounds with inadequate albumin are especially unlikely to heal, so regulating the wound's levels of that protein may in the future prove helpful in healing chronic wounds.

Excess matrix metalloproteinases, which are released by leukocytes, may also cause wounds to become chronic. MMPs break down ECM molecules, growth factors, and protease inhibitors, and thus increase degradation while reducing construction, throwing the delicate compromise between production and degradation out of balance.