Debridement speeds the healing of pressure ulcers, burns, and other wounds. Wounds that contain non-living (necrotic) tissue take longer to heal. The necrotic tissue may become colonized with bacteria, producing an unpleasant odor. Though the wound is not necessarily infected, the bacteria can cause inflammation and strain the body's ability to fight infection. Necrotic tissue may also hide pockets of pus called abscesses. Abscesses can develop into a general infection that may lead to amputation or death.
Not all wounds need debridement. Sometimes it is better to leave a hardened crust of dead tissue, called an eschar, than to remove it and create an open wound, particularly if the crust is stable and the wound is not inflamed. Before performing debridement, the physician will take a medical history with attention to factors that might complicate healing, such as medications being taken and smoking. The physician will also note the cause of the wound and the ways it has been treated. Some ulcers and other wounds occur in places where blood flow is impaired, for example, the foot ulcers that can accompany diabetes mellitus. In such cases, the physician or nurse may decide not to debride the wound because blood flow may be insufficient for proper healing.
In debridement, dead tissue is removed so that the remaining living tissue can adequately heal. Dead tissue exposed to the air will form a hard black crust, called an eschar. Deeper tissue will remain moist and may appear white, or yellow and soft, or flimsy. The four major debridement techniques are surgical, mechanical, chemical, and autolytic.
Surgical debridement (also known as sharp debridement) uses a scalpel, scissors, or other instrument to cut dead tissue from a wound. It is the quickest and most efficient method of debridement. It is the preferred method if there is rapidly developing inflammation of the body's connective tissues (cellulitis) or a more generalized infection (sepsis) that has entered the bloodstream. The procedure can be performed at a patient's bedside. If the target tissue is deep or close to another organ, however, or if the patient is experiencing extreme pain, the procedure may be done in an operating room. Surgical debridement is generally performed by a physician, but in some areas of the country an advance practice nurse or physician assistant may perform the procedure.
The physician will begin by flushing the area with a saline (salt water) solution, and then will apply a topical anesthetic gel to the edges of the wound to minimize pain. Using a forceps to grip the dead tissue, the physician will cut it away bit by bit with a scalpel or scissors. Sometimes it is necessary to leave some dead tissue behind rather than disturb living tissue. The physician may repeat the process again at another session.
In mechanical debridement, a saline-moistened dressing is allowed to dry overnight and adhere to the dead tissue. When the dressing is removed, the dead tissue is pulled away too. This process is one of the oldest methods of debridement. It can be very painful because the dressing can adhere to living as well as nonliving tissue. Because mechanical debridement cannot select between good and bad tissue, it is an unacceptable debridement method for clean wounds where a new layer of healing cells is already developing.
Chemical debridement makes use of certain enzymes and other compounds to dissolve necrotic tissue. It is more
Autolytic debridement takes advantage of the body's own ability to dissolve dead tissue. The key to the technique is keeping the wound moist, which can be accomplished with a variety of dressings. These dressings help to trap wound fluid that contains growth factors, enzymes, and immune cells that promote wound healing. Autolytic debridement is more selective than any other debridement method, but it also takes the longest to work. It is inappropriate for wounds that have become infected.
The physician or nurse will begin by assessing the need for debridement. The wound will be examined, frequently by inserting a gloved finger into the wound to estimate the depth of dead tissue and evaluate whether it lies close to other organs, bone, or important body features. The area may be flushed with a saline solution before debridement begins, and a topical anesthetic gel or injection may be applied if surgical or mechanical debridement is being performed.
After surgical debridement, the wound will be packed with a dry dressing for a day to control bleeding. Afterward, moist dressings are applied to promote wound healing. Moist dressings are also used after mechanical, chemical, and autolytic debridement. Many factors contribute to wound healing, which frequently can take considerable time. Debridement may need to be repeated.
It is possible that underlying tendons, blood vessels or other structures will be damaged during the examination of the wound and during surgical debridement. Surface bacteria may also be introduced deeper into the body, causing infection.
Removal of dead tissue from pressure ulcers and other wounds speeds healing. Although these procedures cause some pain, they are generally well tolerated by patients and can be managed more aggressively. It is not uncommon to debride a wound again in a subsequent session.
Maklebust, JoAnn, and Mary Y. Sieggreen. Pressure Ulcers: Guidelines for Prevention and Nursing Management, 2nd ed. Springhouse, PA: Springhouse Corporation, 1996.
Bale, S. "A Guide to Wound Debridement." Journal of Wound Care 6 (Apr. 1997): 179-182.
Sieggreen, Mary Y., and JoAnn Maklebust. "Debridement: Choices and Challenges." Advances in Wound Care,10 (Mar./Apr. 1997): 32-37.
American Academy of Wound Management. 1255 23rd St., NW, Washington, DC 20037. (202) 521-0368. <http://www.aawm.org>.
Wound Care Institute. 1100 N.E. 163rd Street, Suite #101, North Miami Beach, FL 33162. (305) 919-9192. <http://woundcare.org>.
Richard H. Camer
Eschar—A hardened black crust of dead tissue that may form over a wound.
Pressure ulcer—Also known as a decubitus ulcer, pressure ulcers are open wounds that form whenever prolonged pressure is applied to skin covering bony outcrops of the body. Patients who are bedridden are at risk of developing pressure ulcers. Pressure ulcers are commonly known as bedsores.
Sepsis—A severe systemic infection in which bacteria have entered the blood stream.