Osteomyelitis is the medical term for an infection in a bone. Infections can reach a bone by traveling through the bloodstream or spreading from nearby tissue. Osteomyelitis can also begin in the bone itself if an injury exposes the bone to germs.
In children, osteomyelitis most commonly affects the long bones of the legs and upper arm, while adults are more likely to develop osteomyelitis in the bones that make up the spine (vertebrae). People who have diabetes may develop osteomyelitis in their feet if they have foot ulcers.
Once considered an incurable condition, osteomyelitis can be successfully treated today. Most people require surgery to remove parts of the bone that have died — followed by strong antibiotics, often delivered intravenously, typically for at least six weeks.
Signs and symptoms of osteomyelitis include:
Sometimes osteomyelitis causes no signs and symptoms or has signs and symptoms that are difficult to distinguish from other problems.
When to see a doctor
Most cases of osteomyelitis are caused by staphylococcus bacteria, a type of germ commonly found on the skin or in the nose of even healthy individuals.
Germs can enter a bone in a variety of ways, including:
Your bones are normally resistant to infection. For osteomyelitis to occur, a situation that makes your bones vulnerable must be present.
Recent injury or orthopedic surgery
Invasive medical tubing
Intravenous street drugs
Osteomyelitis complications may include:
Preparing for your appointment
While you might initially bring your signs and symptoms to the attention of your family doctor, he or she may refer you to a doctor specializing in infectious diseases or to an orthopedic surgeon.
What you can do
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
Your doctor may order a combination of tests and procedures to diagnose osteomyelitis and to determine which germ is causing the infection.
Treatments and drugs
The most common treatments for osteomyelitis are antibiotics and surgery to remove portions of bone that are infected or dead.
If you've been told that you have an increased risk of infection, talk to your doctor about ways to prevent infections from occurring. Reducing your risk of infection will also reduce your risk of developing osteomyelitis. In general, take precautions to avoid cuts and scrapes, which give germs easy access to your body. If you do get any cuts and scrapes, clean the area immediately and apply a clean bandage. Check wounds frequently for signs of infection.
Last Updated: 2010-06-03
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