Accuracy of ultrasound, thermography and subepidermal moisture in predicting pressure ulcers: a systematic review

J Wound Care. 2017 May 2;26(5):199-215. doi: 10.12968/jowc.2017.26.5.199.


Objective: Our aims were to: establish the clinical significance of ultrasound, thermography, photography and subepidermal moisture (SEM) measurement; determine the accuracy of ultrasound, thermography, photography and SEM measurement in detecting skin/tissue damage; determine the relative accuracy of one of these assessment methods over another; make recommendations for practice pertaining to assessment of early skin/tissue damage.

Method: The following databases, Cochrane Wounds Group Specialised Register, The Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, Ovid MEDLINE, Ovid EMBASE, Elsevier version, EBSCO CINAHL, , WHO International Clinical Trials Registry (ICTR) and The EU Clinical Trials Register were searched for terms including; thermography, ultrasound, subepidermal moisture, photograph and pressure ulcer.

Results: We identified four SEM, one thermography and five ultrasound studies for inclusion in this review. Data analysis indicated that photography was not a method which allowed for the early prediction of PU presence. SEM values increased with increasing tissue damage, with the sacrum and the heels being the most common anatomical locations for the development of erythema and stage I PUs. Thermography identified temperature changes in tissues and skin that may give an indication of early PU development; however the data were not sufficiently robust. Ultrasound detected pockets of fluid/oedema at different levels of the skin that were comparable with tissue damage. Thus, SEM and ultrasound were the best methods for allowing a more accurate assessment of early skin/tissue damage. Using the EBL Critical Appraisal Tool the overall validities of the studies varied between 33.3-55.6%, meaning that there is potential for bias within all the included studies. All of the studies were situated at level IV, V and VII of the evidence pyramid. Although the methodological quality of the studies warrants consideration, these studies showed the potential that SEM and ultrasound have in early PU detection.

Conclusion: SEM and ultrasound are promising in the detection and prediction of early tissue damage and PU presence. However, these methods should be further studied to clarify their potential for use more widely in PU prevention strategies.

Keywords: photography; pressure ulcer; subepidermal moisture; systematic review; thermography; ultrasound.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Early Diagnosis
  • Erythema
  • Humans
  • Pressure Ulcer / diagnostic imaging*
  • Skin / diagnostic imaging*
  • Thermography*
  • Ultrasonography*