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Wound Series Part 5: Terminal Wounds: When Complete Healing is not an Option

1.5 Contact Hours
This peer reviewed course is applicable for the following professions:
Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN), Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS), Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN), Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVN), Nursing Student, Occupational Therapist (OT), Occupational Therapist Assistant (OTA), Physical Therapist (PT), Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA), Registered Nurse (RN)
This course will be updated or discontinued on or before Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Nationally Accredited

CEUFast, Inc. is accredited as a provider of nursing continuing professional development by the American Nurses Credentialing Center's Commission on Accreditation. ANCC Provider number #P0274.

CEUFast, Inc. is an AOTA Provider of professional development, Course approval ID#04604. This distant learning-independent format is offered at 0.15 CEUs Intermediate, Categories: OT Service Delivery and Foundational Knowledge. AOTA does not endorse specific course content, products, or clinical procedures. AOTA provider number 9575.


Participants will identify key considerations when managing terminal wounds or wounds not expected to heal.


After completing this continuing education course, the participant will be able to meet the following objectives:

  1. Describe two scenarios where complete wound closure as a treatment goal may not be feasible.
  2. Identify two appropriate treatment goals for wounds where complete wound closure/healing is not anticipated.
  3. List three essential items that would be included in all wound assessment documentation.
  4. Describe four key treatment elements to be considered when approaching the clinical management of wounds that are not expected to close/heal completely.
CEUFast Inc. and the course planners for this educational activity do not have any relevant financial relationship(s) to disclose with ineligible companies whose primary business is producing, marketing, selling, re-selling, or distributing healthcare products used by or on patients.

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To earn of certificate of completion you have one of two options:
  1. Take test and pass with a score of at least 80%
  2. Reflect on practice impact by completing self-reflection, self-assessment and course evaluation.
    (NOTE: Some approval agencies and organizations require you to take a test and self reflection is NOT an option.)
Author:    Linda J. Cowan (PHD, ARNP, FNP-BC, CWS)


When an individual exhibits a wound (injury, surgical incision, etc.), the treatment goals typically include complete wound closure and wound healing. Furthermore, the healing trajectory is anticipated to follow established pathways or phases: Hemostasis, Inflammation, Proliferation, and (in full-thickness wounds) Scar Maturation or Remodeling. However, in complex and chronic wounds such as many diabetic foot ulcers, venous leg ulcers, pressure ulcers, where healing is delayed, this expected pathway is interrupted and wounds may get "stuck" in a chronic inflammatory state (please see more complete descriptions of these phases in Leaper et al., 2014 or other parts of the CEUFAST, Inc. Wound Series).1 Nevertheless, even in these chronic wounds, the treatment goal is typically complete closure and healing or resolution of the wound.

What about wounds we do not expect to heal, or where complete closure or resolution is not an option? Wounds such as non-operable malignant tumors protruding from the body of individuals with a terminal illness, non-healing wounds due to arterial insufficiency where surgical revascularization is not an option because of severe comorbid conditions, or pressure ulcers at the end of life due to skin failure (often called Kennedy Terminal Ulcers)? What should the treatment outcome goals be in these wounds?

Scenario-based Examples

Using fictitious case scenarios built from the author’s clinical experiences with real patients, this course will focus on palliative wound care measures and wound treatment options where the desired wound management goal is something other than complete resolution or closure of the wound. Specifically, this course will provide treatment considerations and potential options to prevent or minimize wound enlargement and/or periwound skin breakdown, decrease unpleasant odors associated with the wound, manage wound-related moisture, address wound pain, consider how to help the patient aesthetically (to minimize their feelings of social isolation and improve quality of life), and suggest other useful management tips regarding some of these challenging wounds. The photos in this course were taken from the internet because of the similarity in appearance to what could be seen with the case scenarios (no photos or actual clinical information were taken from the author's clinical case files, to protect patient privacy).

Case Scenario #1

Mr. Smith is a 62-year-old male with a protruding 6cm irregularly -shaped tumor on his left cheek, which is inoperable. His comorbid medical conditions include diabetes mellitus type II (DMII), hypertension, obesity, and malignant melanoma of the right cheek (with systemic metastasis to other organs). Although this case scenario is a fictitious patient, the photo below represents what his tumor may have looked like before opening up as fistula at the inferior border (at 4 o’clock) on the photo - involving the mucous membrane of the mouth.


Image of tumor
Photo source:

Other relevant medical information about Mr. Smith includes:

Laboratory values: Hemoglobin (Hgb) 11.1 / Hematocrit (Hct) 42.0; White blood cells (WBC) 9.8; Electrolytes were all within normal ranges. Hemoglobin A1c (HgbA1c) 6.9; Fasting blood sugar 135.

Mr. Smith’s medications include: Metformin 500 mg (milligrams) orally twice a day, a baby aspirin (81 mg) orally once a day, atenolol 50 mg orally once a day, and a multivitamin once a day. He reports taking acetaminophen 500 mg orally every 4 to 6 hours as needed.

Pertinent social information: Mr. Smith had a girlfriend he lived with for more than ten years, but she left him after his cancer diagnosis, saying she "couldn't stay around to watch him die." He lives at home alone and is a Veteran with a history of having served two tours of combat duty. He also reports having several guns at home. Nothing is known about any history of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the patient states he has not received care at his local VA, stating only that he "has closed that chapter of his life." He has home care nurses who visit him daily for wound care; otherwise, he cares for his wound himself.

Mr. Smith has had only one social visitor from his local church, but the patient asked them not to come back. When asked, “Why?” he said he was embarrassed by the wound odor, appearance, and amount of drainage that he kept having to deal with during the visit. He has not left his house except for doctor's office visits and grocery shopping at a 24-hour grocery after midnight to minimize how many people see him.

Other clinical information and wound description: Mr. Smith’s weight is 175 lbs.; his height is 5’ 10”; his vital signs (blood pressure or BP, pulse, respiration, and temperature) are all unremarkable. The patient complains of pain at the tumor site and inside of mouth near the tumor site at "8" on a scale of 1 to 10, which is constant and "achy" most of the time, but occasionally he experiences a sharp jabbing sensation.

The physical exam also demonstrated Mr. Smith would not often make eye contact and was holding a folded towel against his right cheek near the tumor for exudate control. The tumor is protruding from his right cheek, approximately 3.0cm at the apex of the tumor. The size of overall tumor/lesion is 6.0cm at longest axis x 4.0cm at widest axis and is irregularly shaped with periwound redness and irritation and erosion at inferior border around the 4 o’clock position (using the body as a clock, think of the head always at 12 o’clock and the feet always at 6 o’clock). This area now has an open wound, which has been defined as a fistula tracking to and involving the mucous membrane of the mouth, currently draining copious amounts of clear to brownish liquid (slight sour odor from exudate). Mr. Smith also complains it feels “raw” (very painful to touch) at the inferior border. Chewing on that side increases pain sharply (“up to a 10” on a pain scale of 1 to 10), cold compresses seem to provide minimal and temporary relief (pain level is “3 or 4” on a scale of 1 to 10 when he has the most relief).

Pathophysiology of malignant fungating tumors: In some patients with advanced cancer, a tumor may protrude through the skin, which may or may not be operable. Some studies suggest that 5 to 19% of all patients with a diagnosis of malignant neoplasm will develop a metastatic cancerous skin lesion.2 A great percentage of metastatic breast cancers may result in cutaneous wounds on the breast/chest. Metastatic cutaneous lesions may be ulcerous lesions (tend to look like craters) or fungating.

Fungating lesions result from the infiltration of malignant cells into the skin, surrounding lymph vessels, and supporting blood vessels. They tend to have a nodular or cauliflower-like appearance that sits above the surrounding skin level. Approximately 62% of all fungating wounds will be found on the breast, and 24% of all fungating wounds will be related to head and neck cancers.3 Pain, bleeding, persistent exudates, and odor are the most common complaints reported with malignant cutaneous lesions.4 Still, these wounds also produce a great deal of emotional stress for patients and their caregivers due to the appearance of the wound.3 These cancerous lesions may bleed easily (friable) because of the vascular involvement in the tumor, which often results in a poorly organized growth of new blood vessels within the tumor cells, which tend to leak.5

Management Considerations

  • Minimize wound enlargement if possible:
    • While minimizing wound enlargement is a typical goal for non-cancerous wounds, this may be an unrealistic expectation with some cancerous skin lesions. However, minimizing skin erosion due to exudate-related skin breakdown to the surrounding skin IS a reasonable management goal, as well as addressing pain, bleeding and odor.3,4,6
  • Protect periwound skin (prevent or reduce periwound skin breakdown if possible):
    • Protecting the periwound skin may be accomplished by a variety of options, including the selection of wound dressings appropriate to absorb the anticipated amount of wound exudate, applying a liquid moisture protective barrier (skin barrier wipe or spray) and/or moisture barrier cream or ointment (such as a petrolatum-based ointment, silicone polymer, dimethicone, or zinc oxide cream). Applying a hydrocolloid may be an option to “window the wound” (apply to all of the peri-wound skin up to the skin edges), forming a protective barrier on which to secure other dressings.7
    • If hydrocolloid is used to window the wound, applying a protective skin barrier (wipe or spray) and allowing it to dry first before applying the hydrocolloid can help protect the skin from damage when removing the hydrocolloid. With regards to fistulas within the wound, hydrocolloids may also help protect the periwound skin and provide a base on which to apply fistula management systems or ostomy pouching appliances - depending on the location of the wound and fistula, and if the moisture could be contained in some way - such as isolating the fistula with ostomy management supplies, and applying ostomy seals (waxy strips, paste, or rings to seal edges of appliances and prevent leaking) to the edge of the hydrocolloid near the source of drainage. Controlling exudate from these cancerous lesions is often challenging, especially if they are draining from a diffuse area (the whole lesion).3, 7-10
  • Manage wound-related moisture/exudates:
    • Managing wound moisture for Mr. Smith could include using a liquid skin barrier to the surrounding skin (or other moisture barrier cream or ointment as mentioned above) if the liquid skin barrier is not available. Following that, applying a super absorbent layered primary dressing held in place with a non-traumatic securing device such as a silicone (gentle adherent) border dressing as a secondary dressing (making sure the skin liquid protectant is applied to the skin which the dressing’s adhesive border will be applied to).
    • In this case, the primary dressing could be changed as needed as often as every 2 hours during the day, while re-using the secondary silicone securing dressing as warranted- changing at least daily. This could allow the patient more mobility. During the evening (or if the patient’s drainage amount warrants it during the day), the wound drainage, and especially fistula exudate could be contained in an ostomy or fistula pouch (using an opaque pouch instead of a clear pouch to address the patient’s aesthetic concerns). This drainage may be emptied by the patient or caregiver during the night if needed and could help prevent soiling of bed sheets and prevent maceration of periwound skin, as well as help, prevent a secondary fungal infection from excessive moisture in the area.7-10
    • If bleeding is a problem, calcium alginate should be considered as a component of the primary dressing with direct contact to the wound, as this may help reduce any blood oozing from the wound. However, care should be taken to prevent dressings from adhering to the wound, which would potentially increase the bleeding of these friable tumors when removed.5,12 If frank bleeding occurs, a clinician could consider applying silver nitrate stick or topical coagulant agents, which rapidly coagulate blood like gelling hemostatic foams or a topical application of liquid epinephrine (by a qualified clinician) on gauze or a cotton swab.3, 11
  • Minimize secondary infection (bacterial and fungal):
    • Minimizing secondary infection and reducing exudate odor could both be addressed by several approaches. First, make sure potential bacterial sources are minimized or eradicated (external contaminants, poor hygiene, poor technique with wound care, inadequate clean storage of dressing supplies, expired materials, etc.). Treating infection is often not thought of as an option for patients in palliative care. Still, if the infection causes pain, further skin/wound breakdown, or decreased quality of life, it is appropriate to address it.7,10,12
    • Bacteria often cause unpleasant odors, so removing bacteria and necrotic tissue (that bacteria may attach to) as much as possible is useful. When appropriate, these approaches could be considered: enzymatic ointments such as collagenase, surfactant gels, larval debridement therapy, and careful surgical removal by a qualified clinician. Also, cleansing the bacteria away regularly by washing/irrigating the wound with clean water, wound cleansers, saline, or an antimicrobial solution (such as <10% povidone-iodine solution or weak <0.025% sodium hypochlorite solution), and changing soiled linens, clothing, and wound dressings promptly should be considered.12, 13

Clinical Pearls:

  • Dakin’s solution is essentially a type of a very weak bleach solution (commonly may contain up to 0.50% sodium hypochlorite in a buffered solution).
  • Dakin's solutions are commonly diluted further for clinical care as ½ strength Dakin's (0.25% sodium hypochlorite), ¼ strength Dakin’s (0.125% sodium hypochlorite), and Dilute Dakin’s Solution (0.0125% concentration of sodium hypochlorite).
  • Literature suggests that very dilute Dakin's solution (such as 0.0125% concentration of sodium hypochlorite) is less cytotoxic to healthy cells but still microbicidal13
  • NOTE: If the wound is very friable or bleeds easily, caution is warranted when using Dakin’s solutions due to its thrombolytic properties (it may dissolve blood clots).13
  • Decrease unpleasant odors associated with the wound:
    • Using dressings that contain activated charcoal can reduce odor, as can applying topical metronidazole ointment directly to the fungating wound. Some studies report limited success with topical silver and manuka honey-coated wound products.3, 11 Additional ways to minimize odor in the room is to place a pan of odor absorbing or neutralizing kitty litter on the floor or shelf near the bed and change the litter regularly. Baking soda left on a window sill and/or odor-absorbing/neutralizing electronic air fresheners are additional options. Note: Many patients with cancer or odor sensitivities may not appreciate air fresheners that cover up the unpleasant odor with a stronger odor (so take care to look for odor neutralizing ones, not just fragranced air fresheners).
  • Address wound pain:
    • Wound pain is a concern for this patient because he reports his pain to be an “8 to 10” on a scale of 1 to 10. He reports only taking acetaminophen and reports, “it does not do much, but I don’t want to get hooked on pain meds.” When asking about pain medication, don’t forget to ask the patient if there is anything else he does or takes (eats, drinks, smokes, or alternative medicine) that helps relieve his pain. His understanding of his medical condition, prognosis, expectations of care, and pain treatment goals are important to explore with the patient (and family if appropriate) and discuss with his team.12
    • Self-medicating with alcohol, marijuana, or other street drugs is something people may be more apt to try if individuals are terminal and/or have tried it in the past. You would need to know for several reasons.
      • Does it work?
      • How much, and how often?
      • Does he drive or operate machinery while under the influence?
      • Could it pose a risk of greater harm to himself or others?
      • Would it potentially interact with any other pain treatments/medications?
      • Is a referral to a Pain Management specialist warranted, desired by the patient, or feasible in this situation?
    • The healthcare provider may also ask if the patient has or would like to consider adding alternative treatments such as massage therapy, art in medicine, acupuncture, or acupressure. There is some evidence to suggest they may be helpful in reduce self-reported pain and increase sense of well-being in cancer patients.14-17
  • Psychosocial concerns (including aesthetic considerations to minimize feelings of social isolation):
    • Special considerations for managing the care of this individual: When addressing the most common issues with these types of wounds, it is critical to consider the patient’s (and family member’s, if appropriate) preferences, physical abilities, and emotional needs. It is also important to consider their functional abilities, care environment, ask the patient about their perceptions related to the wound/wound care, allow discussion of their feelings, and offer choices based on this input during management planning.12 A multidisciplinary approach is recommended.7,10,12,18 Furthermore, this patient portrayed in the case scenario is at high risk of depression, and possible suicide which his multidisciplinary health care team should address.19
    • The patient’s Veteran status, presence of guns in the house, recent social isolation, possible feelings of helplessness/hopelessness, and his terminal diagnosis make this case a particularly dangerous situation for the patient. At first possible opportunity, the patient should be asked by a qualified individual (suicide prevention trained social worker, mental health professional, nurse, physician, therapist, etc.) about any suicide ideations, be encouraged to let a trusted friend take possession of any guns or weapons in the house, speak to a mental health professional to formulate a plan to help strengthen his coping skills and post the Veteran Crisis line on or near his phone.20 The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 (Veterans should press 1 for the Veterans Health Administration hotline).21
    • He should also be encouraged to participate in regular phone follow up calls with a health care provider team at his local VA, and perhaps consider getting involved in a support group for terminal cancer patients near him.20,22 His local church and/or some Veteran’s groups may be a potential source of support if the patient would allow them. If his clinical wound treatment plan included measures to help him feel less uncomfortable about his wound/tumor with visitors, this might help facilitate increasing social support for this Veteran. If the patient does express any suicide ideations (for instance, has a suicide plan), it should be considered a medical emergency, with prompt intervention as warranted (e.g., call 911, do not leave the patient alone, and remove any means of self-harm such as guns or pills if at all possible).20

Case Scenario #2

Mr. Simpson is a 74-year-old man with a history of Type II Diabetes Mellitus and arterial insufficiency to the right lower extremity. He also has an active diagnosis of congestive heart failure (the last hospitalization for CHF was over eight months ago) and peripheral vascular disease, as well as a history of a stroke two years ago with some slight residual left-sided weakness. He had previously experienced a left lower leg (below the knee) amputation for arterial insufficiency two years ago and a right great toe amputation for recurrent diabetic foot ulcer to the first metatarsal head and osteomyelitis 12 weeks ago. He now presents with non-healing wounds to his right foot and dry gangrene to his right 4th toe - due to arterial insufficiency. Surgical revascularization is not an option because of his severe comorbid conditions.

Other relevant social and medical information includes: Mr. Simpson lives in a long term care facility (for eight months, with no plans to return to independent living) and has no living family (being a widower of 20 years and no children). He is a smoker (1.5 packs per day for over 30 years), though currently he is limited to smoking only outside at the long term care facility when he can be taken out to the porch by a staff member (approximately once a day). He has had no visitors in the past eight months, and his affect is rather flat, although he brightens up when he talks about his wife and some of their trips abroad. Laboratory values and medications have remained stable and unremarkable for the last six months. His medications include daily oral Warfarin, with bi-weekly to monthly Prothrombin Time and International Normalized Ratio (PT/INR) blood tests being drawn, which remain in a therapeutic range for the past four months.

Other clinical assessments and wound description:


Image of dry gangrene
Photo Source:

Mr. Simpson's left lower leg amputation stump is well-healed with no skin breakdown noted. Overall, Mr. Simpson's skin is very dry, with only fair skin turgor. His right great toe amputation site still has a linear 3cm long x 0.5cm wide wound at the old incision site with pink, slightly hypergranulating tissue noted and some slight maceration to inferior border up to 0.5cm away from wound edges. Only scant yellow/serous exudate is noted on the dry gauze dressing over this area. There is a small 0.7cm round dry, a scabbed area noted to the inside aspect of his 2nd toe proximal to the foot. The interdigit spaces appear dry and intact, but the tip of the 4th toe is black and shriveled with dry gangrene. No exudate is noted from the 2nd toe nor the 4th toe. He denies any wound pain.

Pathophysiology of non-healing arterial ulcers and dry gangrene: As could be surmised from the term "arterial insufficiency" or "arterial ulcer," These skin lesions are the result of a lack of adequate blood flow to intact or injured skin. Small blood clots in the microvasculature (small blood vessels), narrowing of these vessels due to plaque or factors which constrict blood vessels, and lack of power behind the "pumping" action of the heart (as in CHF or with very low cardiac ejection fractions) impairs blood flow and oxygenation to distal extremities such as feet and toes. This not only impairs the ability of these areas to heal but also may cause skin injury (the skin and tissue die due to lack of oxygen and lack of adequate nutrient and waste transport to/from cells). In many cases, the initial damage may be reversible with revascularization surgery or procedures aimed at restoring adequate blood flow. However, in time, if not corrected, skin and tissue damage may become irreversible.8, 23, 24

Gangrene is the term given to the tissue necrosis (irreversible death) which occurs due to significantly reduced blood supply. Gangrene may occur due to injury, complications of diabetes, arterial insufficiency, infection, or other health conditions. Gangrene is classified as dry, wet, and gas gangrene. In dry gangrene, it is desirable to keep it dry (not to ever apply moist dressings over this), as it may progress to wet and then gas gangrene (so noted due to gases typically produced by Clostridium bacteria in the tissue), which indicates a serious infection and is a surgical emergency. Diabetic patients are very susceptible to wet gangrene because of peripheral neuropathy, vascular insufficiency, and hyperglycemia.25

In wet and gas gangrene, surgical amputation is usually performed to prevent the progression and spread of infection to other tissues or sepsis. Sometimes in dry gangrene (as in a distal toe), if there is a clear demarcation of the dry, necrotic tissues, autoamputation may occur (the dry, dead part of the toe may fall off). In certain parts of the globe, autoamputation is desirable, while some evidence suggests surgical amputation of dry gangrene may improve patient outcomes as well.25,26

Management Considerations

  • Minimize wound enlargement if possible:
    • Taking aggressive steps to prevent further amputation of Mr. Simpson’s right lower leg is imperative to decrease his mortality risk and improve his quality of life.8,23,24 It is likely the right lower leg is the one he uses for most transfers if his mobility is limited to a chair/wheelchair. With arterial ulcers, some of the main ways the wound could enlarge are through infection, increasing ischemia, repetitive trauma, or deterioration of the patient’s overall health or nutritional status. While enlargement of the wound due to some of these factors may be prevented, and others may not, each of these factors should be considered.8
    • Mr. Simpson's recent great toe amputation of the right foot for osteomyelitis is of concern if that surgical wound does not heal or if there is any exposed bone in that toe or the proximal portion of the gangrenous toe. Exposed bone or the ability to probe to the bone through a wound opening is predictive of osteomyelitis even in the absence of acute signs of deep infection.8,18,23, 24 Who is following up Mr. Simpson’s surgical site wound? Whether vascular surgery, orthopedic surgery, or podiatry performed the amputation, it is recommended to keep them appraised of the current condition and see if they will make an outpatient appointment for regular follow up until the situation of the gangrenous toe and the right great toe amputation site is resolved.
    • Mr. Simpson’s smoking is one factor impacting his tissue perfusion and ischemia that could be modified.8,23,24 It is noteworthy that he is only able to smoke one cigarette a day due to his residency in a long term care facility. Exploring barriers to help Mr. Simpson stop smoking altogether is important. The 2014 WOCN Guidelines for the Management of Wounds in Patients with Lower-extremity Arterial Disease (LEAD)24 recommends, "Smoking cessation should be encouraged for patients with lower extremity arterial disease/arterial ulcers." Smoking cession "slows the progression of atherosclerosis and decreases the risk of cardiovascular events/death" (Level of evidence = B).
      • Does the facility have any programs on-site to help Mr.Simpson quit completely?
      • What are the reasons he still smokes?
      • Does he feel it is useless to stop?
      • Has he given up so much already that he feels he must retain this one last act of independence?
      • Exploring these questions can help you address both barriers and facilitators to him quitting smoking.

Clinical Pearl

Level-of-Evidence Rating for WOCN Guidelines24:

  • Level A: Two or more supporting Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT)s on LEAD in humans or meta-analysis of RCTs, or Cochrane Systematic Review of RCTs.
  • Level B: One or more supporting controlled trials on LEAD in humans or two or more supporting trials in an animal model.
  • Level C: One supporting controlled trial, at least two supporting case series that were descriptive studies on humans, or expert opinion.
  • Minimize wound enlargement if possible (continued):
    • Mr. Simpson's left lower leg amputation is of concern because it increases his immobility, and he may be using his other leg for all transfers; therefore, he may be unable to stay off the leg/foot with the wounds. Is there a way for him to transfer that does not create any repetitive injuries to any areas of the existing wounds or the rest of the foot? Assessing the arterial perfusion and sensation in the rest of the foot and taking measures to protect the foot from further trauma is vital for this patient.24, 27, 28 Also important for wound healing and minimizing progression of the existing wounds is to monitor his laboratory values, nutritional intake, and medications.8,24 It is good his labs and medications have remained stable and unremarkable for the last six months, but any change (addition of steroids or non-steroid anti-inflammatory medications, for instance, could have a negative impact on his wound healing).8, 24, 27, 28
    • His medications include daily oral warfarin, with bi-weekly to monthly PT/INR blood tests being drawn, which remain in a therapeutic range for the past four months. Monitoring this is also important, especially if there is any consideration of surgically removing the gangrenous toe. He would have to be placed on another anti-coagulant for the surgery and possibly after surgery. His risk for bleeding is increased with any dressing or securing device that adheres to the wound or surrounding skin.
    • One of the biggest concerns with dry gangrene is to prevent it from evolving into a wet or “gas” gangrene.25-26, 29 One non-surgical way clinicians may attempt to do this is to paint the gangrenous tissue with a drying/antimicrobial agent such as 10% povidone-iodine (if the patient is not allergic to iodine), spray products with balsam of Peru and trypsin, or skin protective barrier wipes/spray (typically containing alcohol, butenedioic acid, monobutyl ester, and/or polymer(s)). Any one of these products may be applied daily and let it air dry / keep it uncovered / open to the air or covered only with a light cotton dry gauze (non-occlusive).24
  • Protect periwound skin (prevent or reduce periwound skin breakdown if possible):
    • Overall, Mr. Simpson's skin is very dry, with only fair skin turgor. Working with a multidisciplinary team to approach the issue of adequate hydration for Mr. Simpson is important. With his history of CHF, he may be on fluid restrictions. Assessing the patient’s knowledge and understanding of all of these factors is important to managing his care. His right great toe amputation site has some slight maceration noted at the inferior border up to 0.5cm away from wound edges. Only scant yellow/serous exudate is noted on the dry gauze dressing over this area.
    • Applying a skin protection barrier wipe to his periwound skin with each dressing change and using a gentle non-abrasive dressing securing device (surgical netting, silicone tape, etc.) would be recommended to avoid any damage to the periwound skin due to maceration or with dressing changes. Caution is warranted with any wrap gauze or netting/sleeve securing device so that care is taken to not further impair circulation to the area. Making sure you are using an evidence-based wound dressing that meets the needs of his current surgical wound is important, as well as evaluating the tissue perfusion to these other wounds besides the dry gangrenous toe.8,9,23,24,27-29 Is there adequate tissue perfusion for healing these other wounds?
  • Manage wound-related moisture/exudates:
    • Mr. Simpson's wounds are not draining a large amount, so managing wound-related moisture can be addressed, keeping these three things in mind:
      • Care of an open wound includes maintaining a moist wound bed.
      • Area(s) affected by Gangrene should be kept as dry as possible.
      • Closed surgical wounds (closed incision sites with no openings in the surgical incision site) should also have a dry protective dressing if one is warranted.8,9,23,24,27-29 Mr. Simpson’s open granulating wound is at the incision site, but it has been 12 weeks since surgery, so this is no longer a fresh post-op closed surgical incision. Rather, it is a chronic open wound (0.5 cm wide) that has some scant exudate. The parts of this wound are that are open wounds should be kept moist without harming the surrounding skin. A silicone interfaced wound dressing, or petrolatum-based wound ointment or impregnated dressing may be options to meet that need.7, 9
  • Minimize secondary infection (bacterial and fungal):
    • What is the temperature of the extremity? Literature suggests that colder temperatures that keep the affected extremity below normal body temperature may actually impair wound healing and promote bacterial growth in diabetic foot ulcers. Mr. Simpson's interdigit spaces (space between toes) appear dry and intact, so that is good news. You will want to keep an eye on these areas to ensure they remain free from moisture (which promotes fungal growth). Look at the patient's toenails – is there evidence of onychomycosis (toenail fungal infection)? If so, this is common in diabetics and has been associated with increased risk of fungal infection in the wound and between the toes as well, so good skincare of the foot and especially between the toes is important.8,27,28
  • Decrease unpleasant odors associated with the wound:
    • Mr. Simpson does not have any odor associated with his wound or wound exudate (drainage).
  • Address wound pain:
    • Mr. Simpson denies any wound pain. Does he have pain elsewhere? Is he currently taking any medications (prescribed, over the counter, or other drugs) for pain elsewhere in his body? Assessing this is important. Evaluating the sensation in the foot and taking measures to protect the foot from further trauma is also vital for this patient.28,29
  • Psychosocial concerns (including aesthetic considerations to minimize feelings of social isolation):
    • Mr. Simpson has been living in a long term care facility for eight months, with no plans to return to independent living. How is he coping with this? He has no living family (being a widower of 20 years and no children, and he has had no visitors in the past eight months. This indicates a serious risk of social isolation.12,19 His affect, when you talk with him, is rather flat, although he brightens up when he talks about his wife and some of their trips abroad. Asking the patient what his goals are can be important at this point.
      • What are his goals for his wound healing?
      • Are they realistic?
      • Is it feasible to attempt to reach any of these goals?
      • What are his goals for his care where he is at now?
      • Does he have any short-term goals (3 to 6 months) or one year or five-year goals?
    • A multidisciplinary team approach to Mr. Simpson may include some steps to address his goals, come up with a treatment plan that is acceptable to him/considers his preferences and values, and decrease his social isolation (examples: arrange for volunteer visitors to come and talk to him about his travels, display some of his personal photos and/or personal effects related to happy memories around his room, encouraging a recreational therapist to meet with him regularly, explore ways to get him more involved in activities/hobbies, perhaps a short field trip to a location that interests him for a few hours).

Case Scenario #3

Mrs. Jones is a 86 year old frail female resident of a long term facility who has been steadily declining in health for more than a year. Her comorbid conditions include dementia, osteoarthritis of the hips and knees, congestive heart failure (CHF), hypothyroidism, end-stage renal disease (ESRD), and hypertension (HTN). She is no longer eating very much (weighs 88 lbs.), except for small amounts of water and liquid food being offered to her by the long term care (LTC) staff every 2 hours through a needleless syringe to the mouth. She is still able to swallow relatively well but seems to have lost interest in food. Although she could not remember any staff member's names, until recently, she used to arouse easily and smile at staff when they would sing to her. Recently, however, she has been more difficult to arouse and no longer smiles at staff even when they sing to her. Mrs. Jones moans whenever she is turned. Her family visits about once a week and have been informed of her declining status. She has been declared a “no-code,” meaning no resuscitative efforts will be made to revive her if she has a cardiac or respiratory arrest. Mrs. Jones has lost 10 lbs. in the past three weeks.

Other relevant medical information includes:

Mrs. Jones does not like to be turned (as evidenced by her groaning whenever she is repositioned), and her family members do not want to see her pain increased by turning her. Her organs are failing (CHF and ESRD)8,12, and her skin is now also failing. The skin is the largest organ in the body, and at the end of life, when other systems or organs are failing, the skin is likely to fail as well.29-31

Laboratory values: Her hemoglobin and hematocrit are 8.5 g/dl and 32% respectively; albumin is 2.0 g/dl; pre-albumin was not drawn in the past six months. Her BUN and creatinine and serum glucose are all slightly elevated as well as her sodium, indicating her serum osmolality is higher than normal. This indicates some poor nutritional values as well as potential dehydration.

Medications: Levothyroxine 50 micrograms orally per day in am; Atenolol 25 mg orally per day in am; Furosemide 20mg orally per day in am.

Other clinical assessments and wound description: Mrs. Jones has a large (6cm Long x 8cm Wide) butterfly-shaped area of deep purple discoloration to the intact skin over the sacral region (documented by the nurses as a suspected deep tissue injury, likely related to pressure). Her skin turgor is poor, and her mucous membranes in her mouth are somewhat dry.

Pathophysiology of Kennedy terminal ulcers: This type of skin discoloration has been described in the scientific literature as a Kennedy Terminal Ulcer32 or, more recently, as Skin Changes at Life's End (SCALE).30 Kennedy Terminal Ulcers are typically located in the sacral region and initially may present as deep purple to maroon, deep tissue injury discoloration in a butterfly shape (see figure below). According to the National Pressure Ulcer Advisory Panel (NPUAP)33, an area of intact skin with deep purple or maroon skin discoloration over a bony prominence (related to pressure and/or shearing forces) is also known as a Deep Tissue Injury (DTI). In the case of Kennedy Terminal Ulcer, it was first described by Karen Lou Kennedy in 198932 and has also been described as Skin Changes at Life’s End (SCALE).30 These deep tissue injuries over the sacral area in terminal patients represent organ failure of the skin at the end of life when tissue perfusion is decreased, and other organs such as the heart, kidneys, and lungs are failing.30,32

The skin is the largest organ in the body, and even with optimal care, individuals at the end of life with multiple organ/system failure may experience this type of 'skin organ failure.32 The deep purple discoloration may evolve slowly or quickly develop into a full-thickness pressure ulcer (stage 3 or 4) even with optimal care.29-34 Caregivers often feel guilt when Kennedy Terminal Ulcers occur, yet many experts believe these types of ulcers at the end of life are unavoidable.

Kennedy Terminal Ulcer

Image of Kennedy Terminal Ulcer

Management Considerations

  • Minimize wound enlargement if possible:
    • Management goals for this type of occurrence at the end of life are commonly focused on comfort and pain control (and rightly so), however, for any pressure-related skin/tissue damage, offloading or minimizing pressure and reducing friction and shearing forces should always be considered. Addressing both pain as well as pressure/shear reduction is a challenge, yet just because a patient is terminal does not mean clinicians should stop providing good skincare and attempt to minimize friction/shearing/pressure and moisture insults to skin.7,10,12 
    • In this case scenario, Mrs. Jones’s skin is presently intact, and measures can be taken within the patient's advanced directives to minimize the risk of breakdown. For example, by reducing friction/shear and moisture insults to the skin (such as with incontinence). In addition, taking measures to minimize the risk of secondary skin infection (bacterial and fungal) by good skin assessments and skincare as tolerated by the patient is important. Applying a good skin moisturizing cream may help dry skin to be more supple and allows the skin to retain some suppleness, which can help skin resilience to external forces.
    • Furthermore, for this patient, her nutritional status and indicators of poor hydration put her skin at a higher risk of breakdown. The bottom line is that her organs are failing (CHF and ESRD), and now it appears her skin is starting to fail. The skin is the largest organ in the body, and at the end of life, when other systems or organs are failing, the skin is likely to fail as well.29-32  It may or may not be possible to prevent the enlargement/progression of this wound.
  • Protect periwound skin (prevent or reduce periwound skin breakdown if possible):
    • To try and minimize wound enlargement/pressure ulcer evolution and protect the periwound skin: If the patient can tolerate it, a low air loss, alternating, or even foam/memory foam mattress may help redistribute some of the pressure in bed. Avoiding extended lengths of time sitting up in chair or bed with head of the bed elevated over 30 degrees would be an important consideration to reduce friction and shearing forces as well as concentrated pressure on the sacral/coccyx areas.7,29,31,32
  • Manage wound-related moisture/exudates:
    • Mrs. Jones does not currently have any wound drainage.
  • Minimize secondary infection (bacterial and fungal):
    • Consideration for managing any incontinence or excess skin moisture may help minimize the risk of skin irritation, further skin deterioration, and/or fungal infection. Avoiding the use of powders in skin folds (which trap moisture) may also help reduce the risk of fungal infection.29,31
  • Decrease unpleasant odors associated with the wound:
    • Currently, there are no unpleasant odors related to Mrs. Jones’ skin discoloration/Kennedy ulcer.
  • Address wound pain:
    • Some of the newer mattresses or mattress overlays have turn assist features that accomplish slight position changes in very small increments so as not to cause pain but be enough of a change in position to relieve some pressure. While the comfort of the patient is paramount in palliative care, repositioning and offloading can be an important pain relief measure since a body that remains immobile for a long period of time, tends to get still/sore. Timing all repositioning for 30 minutes AFTER pain medication is administered (to allow the medication to work) – instead of immediately before or within only a few minutes after administering the medication would be an important pain relief measure. In non-verbal patients, assessing grimacing and moaning during movement may indicate discomfort.7,8,10,29,31
  • Psychosocial and other concerns:
    • Documentation is such an important part of the palliative care provided to these terminal individuals. Skin and wound care are important but are only one part of a total plan of care for the whole patient. Improving the hydration status in a slightly dehydrated individual may improve their overall feeling of well-being. However, in a "no-code" individual or someone who has advanced directive indicating they do not wish to have any life-extending measures, offering more fluid and nourishment is limited to what the patient wants.7,8,10
    • In a person with altered mental status, this is very challenging for family members and health caregivers. Therefore, the plan of care in palliative care must be patient-centered (it is extremely valuable to have detailed advance directives drawn up while the patient is completely lucid, before such documentation may be needed). At the same time, documentation must meet the facility, state, organizational requirements. Ideally, when a patient enters into palliative care, a meeting with the patient, the patient’s caregiver (CG) and family members is documented with education provided to the patient and family about what palliative care is and what the care goals are for the patient under palliative care and what can be expected at the end of life (including skincare and potential skin changes at the end of life).7,8,10
    • The medical record should document the patient’s clinical condition, co-morbid conditions, pressure ulcer risk factors, skin assessment(s), interventions (consistent with the patient’s/family/CG wishes as appropriate per state laws, and evidence-based guidelines). The documentation should also report the patient’s response to interventions.8,29,30
    • Controlling wound-related pain is a high priority, and using foam wedges and positioning pillows that can minimize pressure to boney prominences, including at the heels and knees, hips, elbows, shoulders, scapula, spinal vertebra, and occiput as well as sacrum and coccyx helps to reposition as well as provide comfort. The use of silicone sheeting or silicone border wound dressings over sacral areas to prevent Kennedy Terminal Ulcers or SCALE (intact skin lesions) is somewhat controversial. They may be used more frequently in intensive care units35,36 and long term care to prevent pressure or friction/shear-related injuries. Still, some more research is warranted related to any potential they have in preventing SCALE lesions (especially if most SCALE lesions are unavoidable due to skin failure). As there is currently no strong evidence either to support or refute that they may be helpful, clinicians are urged to review the literature and make their decision based on their clinical judgment.
    • These silicone border dressings tend to be a large butterfly-shaped self-adherent dressing with a silicone interface and some measure of foam padding. Some experts' feel they may help provide an extra measure of protection and reduce shearing forces over sacral areas36 and may be left in place for several days (5-7 days) if unsoiled, but the silicone interface allows for the clinician to lift and daily assess the skin underneath the dressing and replace it back in place easily.9 Once it is moist or soiled, it should be removed/replaced (see below for one example of this type of dressing).

Example of silicone dressing
Photo source:


In summary, we have briefly discussed three fictitious cases involving “terminal wounds” or those not expected to heal completely. We have highlighted the need to consider a holistic approach to clinical care and possible ways some of these factors could be addressed: minimizing wound enlargement if possible, protecting the periwound skin (prevent or reduce periwound skin breakdown if possible), manage wound-related moisture/exudates, minimize secondary infection (bacterial and fungal), decrease unpleasant odors associated with the wound, address wound pain and psychosocial concerns (including aesthetic considerations to minimize feelings of social isolation) when approaching a clinical management plan for these patients. Every patient is unique, and you have the potential to contribute your unique gifts to a multidisciplinary team and make a positive impact on a person who is experiencing a challenging situation.37

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