Being bedridden: the health risks

When someone is bedridden, the person needs around-the-clock care. This almost always requires more than one person/caregiver, as the bedridden person is susceptible to a myriad of health risks, some of which are potentially fatal.

Although each person is affected differently, the primary effects on the body’s systems are as follows:

Integumentary system

This body system is made up by the skin and can be negatively affected by immobility, which may result in deep and painful pressure wounds on the skin known as bed sores.

Cardiovascular system

Because of immobility, the heart has to work harder than usual to transport blood and oxygen to other parts of the body.

Respiratory system

In bedridden patients, fluid has a higher probability of building up in the lungs. This can cause unused areas of the lungs to collapse and may even result in pneumonia.

Musculoskeletal system

The bones and muscles are most affected by immobility. Being bedridden can result in the wasting of muscles and a deterioration of bone mass.

Nervous system

Immobility causes prolonged pressure on certain parts of the body. Over time, this results in pain, tingling sensations and less (or no) feeling in certain parts of the body.

Genitourinary system
This system regulates the distribution of fluids throughout the body. When a person is bedridden, the body retains more water, which increases the risk for bladder infections and kidney stones.

Endocrine system
Metabolism forms a major part of the endocrine system. Immobility creates changes in metabolism that may lead to indigestion, gas and nausea.

These are just the physical risks of being bedridden. Being confined to a bed for a prolonged or permanent period of time can, of course, also take a tremendous toll on the person’s mental health, resulting in feelings of hopelessness, depression and thoughts of suicide.

Take action
Family and caregivers should familiarise themselves with ways in which to prevent and manage the above-mentioned physical and mental risks:

• Move the bedridden person every two hours, alternating from the right side to the left side, and then onto the person’s back. Use pillows to support the person’s position, if required.
• Maintain a strict hygiene regimen, paying special attention to oral and dental care.
• If possible, help the person to get out of bed into a sitting position.
• In situations where out-of-bed sitting isn’t possible, you can create an armchair-like structure by using pillows so that the person is able to sit upright in bed for a short period of time.
• Engage the person in routine passive movements, where his or her joints are moved with little or no participation by them.
• Consult with a registered dietician for a menu of appropriate meals and drinks, since eating is a lot harder if you’re immobilised or bedridden.
• Place a mattress on the floor if the person has a tendency to fall out of bed.
• Massage the person’s arms, hands and legs regularly. This is soothing and is a good way to connect with the person. It also helps them feel cared for.
• Make sure the bed is positioned near the window for a view and fresh air on clear days.  
• Include activities they enjoy into their daily routine. Try to get them out of the house if you can manage to move them into a wheelchair, read and talk to them, and show them albums or their favourite movies.

REMEMBER: Caring for a bedridden person is a huge responsibility. But it’s your responsibility to also admit when you need help, and to ask for it.
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