What Is Osteomyelitis?

Osteomyelitis is the medical name for a bone infection. In most cases, the infecting agent is a bacterium, oftentimes the organism, Staphylococcus aureus. Fungal infections also occur, though less commonly. Pathogens penetrate the bone from surrounding tissues or through the bloodstream. Infections can also develop within the bone itself, when subject to a break or a wound. Osteomyelitis is a rare condition, affecting only about two persons out of 10,000, but it can have a detrimental impact on health.

In past centuries, persons with a bone infection often risked loss of life or limb. This is no longer true, thanks to the advent of antibiotics and other modern medical techniques. If you or someone you love has indications of osteomyelitis, contact your Baptist Health medical team right away. Our providers will make your bone health a priority.

What Are the Symptoms of Osteomyelitis?

The symptoms of a bone infection include:

  • Swelling and redness at the infection site
  • Warm skin
  • Pain
  • Fever
  • Weakness or fatigue

Left unchecked, osteomyelitis can lead to bone death (called osteonecrosis), skin cancer, and arthritis, if the infection spreads from a bone to the joints. In children, osteomyelitis can retard growth.  

What Causes Osteomyelitis?

Osteomyelitis is caused by microscopic pathogens, normally bacteria but occasionally fungi. An infection can originate:

  • In the bloodstream
  • In tissues surrounding the bone
  • In the bone itself, following injury
  • During a surgical procedure on the bone or neighboring structures

Risk factors include age, unhealthy patterns of behavior, and preexisting medical conditions. The young (under age 20) and the old (over age 50) are more likely to develop bone infections than middle-aged populations. Alcoholics and drug abusers also experience greater exposure. Individuals who suffer from circulation disorders or immune deficiencies, or who rely on catheters or medical tubing for their care, are also at risk. On the other hand, sex is not typically a factor; men and women develop bone infections in roughly equal numbers.

Preventing osteomyelitis is largely a matter of proper wound care. If you participate in contact sports or some form of manual labor, wear protective clothing and appropriate footwear.

How Is Osteomyelitis Diagnosed?

Your physician will take one or more of the following steps to diagnose a bone infection:

  • Physical examination: Your doctor will examine the site of infection, looking for swelling and redness or discoloration, and feeling for tenderness or warmth. If the site has ulcerated, he or she may use a dull probe to determine its relationship to the bone.
  • Imaging tests: X-rays, CT scans, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans can provide detailed images of the bone and other nearby structures. These images will provide clues as to the nature, extent, and severity of the infection.
  • Bloodwork and other tests: Bloodwork can reveal elevated white blood cell counts, which are indicators of infection. Throat swabs, urine cultures, and stool cultures can assist your physician in identifying the agent or agents of infection.
  • Bone biopsy: A biopsy is the medical examination of a small sample of live cells for evidence of disease or abnormalities. A physician who orders an osteomyelitis biopsy will be interested in any pathogen that’s located at the site of infection.

How Is Osteomyelitis Treated?

There are two primary means of treating a bone infection:

  • Medications: The treatment of osteomyelitis has been revolutionized by the availability of antibiotics and other antimicrobials. Most medications are administered directly into the bloodstream by means of injection, usually in the arm. A course of treatment typically runs six weeks. A second round of antibiotics, delivered orally, is sometimes required as well.
  • Surgery: Surgery remains an effective way of treating the most serious cases. During a surgical procedure, your physician will drain and clean the site of infection, remove dead or diseased tissue, and restore normal blood flow to the area. If the infection has progressed beyond a certain point, or is poised to spread to other parts of the body, it may be necessary to amputate the bone.

The prognosis for people suffering from a bone infection is far more positive than it once was. Early and aggressive treatment produces the best results. Expect a long period of recuperation.

Baptist Health Can Help

Osteomyelitis is a rare but potentially serious medical condition. If you’re experiencing bone infection symptoms, see your Baptist Health physician for diagnosis and treatment options.

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