Dressings and topical agents for treating venous leg ulcers

Gill Norman, Maggie J Westby, Amber D Rithalia, Nikki Stubbs, Marta O Soares, Jo C Dumville

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


BACKGROUND: Venous leg ulcers are open skin wounds on the lower leg which can be slow to heal, and are both painful and costly. The point prevalence of open venous leg ulcers in the UK is about 3 cases per 10,000 people, and many people experience recurrent episodes of prolonged ulceration. First-line treatment for venous leg ulcers is compression therapy, but a wide range of dressings and topical treatments are also used. This diversity of treatments makes evidence-based decision-making challenging, and a clear and current overview of all the evidence is required. This review is a network meta-analysis (NMA) which assesses the probability of complete ulcer healing associated with alternative dressings and topical agents.

OBJECTIVES: To assess the effects of (1) dressings and (2) topical agents for healing venous leg ulcers in any care setting and to rank treatments in order of effectiveness, with assessment of uncertainty and evidence quality.

SEARCH METHODS: In March 2017 we searched the Cochrane Wounds Specialised Register; the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL); Ovid MEDLINE; Ovid MEDLINE (In-Process & Other Non-Indexed Citations); Ovid Embase and EBSCO CINAHL Plus. We also scanned reference lists of relevant included studies as well as reviews, meta-analyses, guidelines and health technology reports to identify additional studies. There were no restrictions with respect to language, date of publication or study setting. We updated this search in March 2018; as a result several studies are awaiting classification.

SELECTION CRITERIA: We included published or unpublished randomised controlled trials (RCTs) that enrolled adults with venous leg ulcers and compared the effects of at least one of the following interventions with any other intervention in the treatment of venous leg ulcers: any dressing, or any topical agent applied directly to an open venous leg ulcer and left in situ. We excluded from this review dressings attached to external devices such as negative pressure wound therapies, skin grafts, growth factors and other biological agents, larval therapy and treatments such as laser, heat or ultrasound. Studies were required to report complete wound healing to be eligible.

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Two review authors independently performed study selection, 'Risk of bias' assessment and data extraction. We conducted this NMA using frequentist meta-regression methods for the efficacy outcome; the probability of complete healing. We assumed that treatment effects were similar within dressings classes (e.g. hydrocolloid, foam). We present estimates of effect with their 95% confidence intervals (CIs) for individual treatments focusing on comparisons with widely used dressing classes, and we report ranking probabilities for each intervention (probability of being the best, second best, etc treatment). We assessed the certainty (quality) of the body of evidence using GRADE for each network comparison and for the network as whole.

MAIN RESULTS: We included 78 RCTs (7014 participants) in this review. Of these, 59 studies (5156 participants, 25 different interventions) were included in the NMA; resulting in 40 direct contrasts which informed 300 mixed-treatment contrasts.The evidence for the network as a whole was of low certainty. This judgement was based on the sparsity of the network leading to imprecision and the general high risk of bias in the included studies. Sensitivity analyses also demonstrated instability in key aspects of the network and results are reported for the extended sensitivity analysis. Evidence for individual contrasts was mainly judged to be low or very low certainty.The uncertainty was perpetuated when the results were considered by ranking the treatments in terms of the probability that they were the most effective for ulcer healing, with many treatments having similar, low, probabilities of being the best treatment. The two most highly-ranked treatments both had more than 50% probability of being the best (sucralfate and silver dressings). However, the data for sucralfate was from one small study, which means that this finding should be interpreted with caution. When exploring the data for silver and sucralfate compared with widely-used dressing classes, there was some evidence that silver dressings may increase the probability of venous leg ulcer healing, compared with nonadherent dressings: RR 2.43, 95% CI 1.58 to 3.74 (moderate-certainty evidence in the context of a low-certainty network). For all other combinations of these five interventions it was unclear whether the intervention increased the probability of healing; in each case this was low- or very low-certainty evidence as a consequence of one or more of imprecision, risk of bias and inconsistency.

AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: More research is needed to determine whether particular dressings or topical agents improve the probability of healing of venous leg ulcers. However, the NMA is uninformative regarding which interventions might best be included in a large trial, largely because of the low certainty of the whole network and of individual comparisons.The results of this NMA focus exclusively on complete healing; whilst this is of key importance to people living with venous leg ulcers, clinicians may wish to take into account other patient-important outcomes and factors such as patient preference and cost.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberCD012583
Number of pages293
JournalCochrane Database of Systematic Reviews
Early online date15 Jun 2018
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 15 Jun 2018

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© 2018 The Cochrane Collaboration. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Uploaded in accordance with the publisher’s self-archiving policy. Further copying may not be permitted; contact the publisher for details


  • Journal Article
  • Review

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