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What is Osteomyelitis?

By Sandra Koehler
Updated Feb 20, 2024
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Osteomyelitis is an infection of the bone. It is commonly caused by an infection, usually bacterial in nature, which starts in another part of the body and spreads by the blood. It can be acute, meaning it has a rapid onset, or chronic, meaning it is persistent and long-lasting.

This infection can be caused by a complication somewhere else in the body like pneumonia or a urinary tract infection. The most common bacteria that causes it is staphylococcus aureus. This infection is then carried through the body in the blood, also known as sepsis, a whole body or systemic inflammatory condition, or bacteremia, a condition where there is bacteria present in the blood. It can also be caused by a trauma, typically where there is a break in the skin. Chronic open wounds, such as diabetic ulcers, can also open up a path for the bacteria to spread to the bone.

Typically, the condition is found in the feet, vertebrae or spine, and in the pelvis in adults. Children usually experience this infection in the long bones such as the femur or thigh bone. People with certain other health problems, such as diabetes, sickle cell disease immune system compromise and the elderly in general are at a higher risk.

Osteomyelitis symptoms can include local inflammation, warmth and redness of the area, pain in the bone, fever with or without malaise and nausea. Malaise is a general feeling of discomfort. The victim can also experience things such as chills, excessive sweating, low back pain or generalized swelling of the ankles, feet and legs.

Diagnosis of osteomyelitis is made through a general physical examination where pain, swelling and redness can be detected. Blood tests, bone scans, MRIs, and bone lesion biopsies are also helpful diagnostic tools. In some cases a needle aspiration is necessary. This is where the infected fluids causing swelling are drawn out from the area.

The typical course of treatment is antibiotics to destroy the bacteria. In severe cases surgery may be needed if the infection is resistant to antibiotics to remove the dead bone tissue. Surgery is then followed by a six-week course of antibiotics.

In most cases, if treated, osteomyelitis can be successfully solved. But if it becomes chronic, the abscesses, or pus-filled pockets in the bone, can inhibit blood flow to the bone and spread the infection. Chronic osteomyelitis sufferers occasionally need more drastic measures, such as amputations, to avoid further spread of the bacteria.

The best treatment is prevention. Practicing good hygiene and consulting with a qualified medical professional as soon as the symptoms present are key, especially for those considered high risk. The sooner the infection is treated, the better chances for a full recovery.

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Discussion Comments
By Ceptorbi — On Feb 14, 2014

@Nefertini, osteomyelitis treatment begins with antibiotics, either oral antibiotics or IV antibiotic therapy. A bone biopsy is usually done to identify the specific organism causing the infection so that the appropriate drugs can be prescribed for the infection. Surgery may also be needed to remove damaged bone and tissue or drain the infection.

By Nefertini — On Feb 13, 2014

Since I'm a diabetic, the idea of this disease scares me, and I seek prompt medical attention for any infections I get. What types of osteomyelitis treatment are available?

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