Can Bedsores Lead to Death?

Can bedsores lead to death? For actor Christopher Reeve, the answer was yes.

Best known for playing Superman, Reeve was paralyzed from the neck down in a 1995 horseback riding accident at the age of 42. Reeve quickly became the poster child of spinal cord injury recovery, amazing doctors and the public by beating the medical odds. In the face of such tenacity and courage, who would have thought that Reeve would ultimately die from a bedsore ten years later at the age of 52?

Can bedsores lead to death?

Bedsores can lead to bacteremia, or the presence of bacteria in the bloodstream. Bacteremia associated with pressure ulcers, or BAPU, has a 50 percent mortality rate. It’s believed that bodily strain from bacteremia led to the heart attack that finally ended Reeve’s life.

Also known as pressure ulcers, decubitus ulcers and pressure sores, bedsores are areas of necrosis (dead cells) caused by compression of the skin and surrounding tissues that causes blood flow failure. Bedsores typically occur on bony prominences which don’t have much fat to protect them, such as the knees, elbows, shoulders, lower back, heels and hips, and they’re ranked according to four stages of severity.

Six criteria, according to the Braden Scale for Predicting Pressure Sore Risk, identify patients most at risk. These factors include limited ability or willingness to move oneself independently, poor nutrition, reduced physical activity, exposure to moisture, impaired ability to sense and communicate pain, and prolonged pressure, friction and shear on the skin. (Shear is the gravity-induced resistance between a patient’s skin and the surface on which the patient is resting, such as a chair or bedsheet.)

To prevent bedsores in at-risk patients, caregivers are tasked with frequent repositioning and cushioning patients’ bodies.

Studies have shown that patients with bedsores are two to three times more likely to die than patients without bedsores. As many as 70 percent of patients with bedsores will die within a “short period of time,” and among newly-admitted nursing home residents, 92 percent of those who died within 12 weeks had developed bedsores within three weeks of nursing home admission.

However, researchers have found that these same patients often have co-existing serious medical conditions.

Are bedsores themselves typically the cause of death?

Bedsores themselves generally do not cause death. A study published in the Journal of Gerontology found that while nursing home patients with bedsores are more likely to die than their fellow patients without bedsores, “… This increased risk is largely related to their frailty and high disease burden, and not a direct result of the ulcer.” The study found that patients with more severe bedsores were not at greater risk of dying than those with less advanced bedsores, which led researchers to believe that it’s the association between bedsores and other clinical conditions, and not bedsores themselves, that are the largest source of increased death risk.

But complications from bedsores can and do result in death. If you’re Christopher Reeve or his family, scientific studies and statistics offer cold comfort.