Support surfaces for the treatment and prevention of pressure ulcers: a systematic literature review

Katherine Rae, Stephen Isbel, Dominic Upton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)


Changes in technology have resulted in a lack of clarity regarding the comparative effectiveness between active and reactive support surfaces in the prevention and treatment of pressure ulcers (PUs). The purpose of this literature review was to evaluate the comparative effectiveness of active and reactive mattresses for prevention and treatment of PUs.

A literature search was completed using CINAHL, Medline Plus, Scopus, Cochrane Library and PubMed databases, as well as reference lists. A temporal limiter was placed excluding studies published before 2000 due to changes in care standards and support surface technology.

Of the 33 articles included, nine were systematic/literature reviews and 24 were randomised controlled trials (RCTs). There was a consensus that pressure mattresses are an effective prevention and treatment strategy, however comparisons of the two types were often inconclusive or conflicting. Studies were conducted in acute, sub-acute or residential facilities, with no studies in a domiciliary setting. The majority of studies were rated as moderate quality with significant methodological limitations.

Further research is needed to investigate the use of support surfaces in a domiciliary setting with an appropriate methodology aimed at minimising the limitations described in the existing literature.
Search methods: In April 2015, for this fourth update we searched The Cochrane Wounds Group Specialised Register (searched 15 April 2015) which includes the results of regular searches of MEDLINE, EMBASE and CINAHL and The Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) (The Cochrane Library 2015, Issue 3).

Selection criteria: Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and quasi-randomised trials, published or unpublished, that assessed the effects of any support surface for prevention of pressure ulcers, in any patient group or setting which measured pressure ulcer incidence. Trials reporting only proxy outcomes (e.g. interface pressure) were excluded. Two review authors independently selected trials.

Data collection and analysis: Data were extracted by one review author and checked by another. Where appropriate, estimates from similar trials were pooled for meta-analysis.

Main results: For this fourth update six new trials were included, bringing the total of included trials to 59.Foam alternatives to standard hospital foam mattresses reduce the incidence of pressure ulcers in people at risk (RR 0.40 95% CI 0.21 to 0.74). The relative merits of alternating- and constant low-pressure devices are unclear. One high-quality trial suggested that alternating-pressure mattresses may be more cost effective than alternating-pressure overlays in a UK context.Pressure-relieving overlays on the operating table reduce postoperative pressure ulcer incidence, although two trials indicated that foam overlays caused adverse skin changes. Meta-analysis of three trials suggest that Australian standard medical sheepskins prevent pressure ulcers (RR 0.56 95% CI 0.32 to 0.97).

Authors' conclusions: People at high risk of developing pressure ulcers should use higher-specification foam mattresses rather than standard hospital foam mattresses. The relative merits of higher-specification constant low-pressure and alternating-pressure support surfaces for preventing pressure ulcers are unclear, but alternating-pressure mattresses may be more cost effective than alternating-pressure overlays in a UK context. Medical grade sheepskins are associated with a decrease in pressure ulcer development. Organisations might consider the use of some forms of pressure relief for high risk patients in the operating theatre.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)467-474
Number of pages122
JournalJournal of Wound Care
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 30 Aug 2018


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