Diagnosis

Your doctor may feel the area around the affected bone for any tenderness, swelling or warmth. If you have a foot ulcer, your doctor may use a dull probe to determine the proximity of the underlying bone.

Your doctor may order a combination of tests and procedures to diagnose osteomyelitis and to determine which germ is causing the infection, such as:

Blood tests

Blood tests may reveal elevated levels of white blood cells and other factors that may indicate that your body is fighting an infection. If your osteomyelitis was caused by an infection in the blood, tests may reveal what germs are to blame.

No blood test exists that tells your doctor whether you do or do not have osteomyelitis. However, blood tests do give clues that your doctor uses to decide what further tests and procedures you may need.

Imaging tests

  • X-rays. X-rays can reveal damage to your bone. However, damage may not be visible until osteomyelitis has been present for several weeks. More-detailed imaging tests may be necessary if your osteomyelitis has developed more recently.
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan. A CT scan combines X-ray images taken from many different angles, creating detailed cross-sectional views of a person's internal structures.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Using radio waves and a strong magnetic field, MRI scans can produce exceptionally detailed images of bones and the soft tissues that surround them.

Bone biopsy

A bone biopsy is the gold standard for diagnosing osteomyelitis, because it can also reveal what particular type of germ has infected your bone. Knowing the type of germ allows your doctor to choose an antibiotic that works particularly well for that type of infection.

An open biopsy requires anesthesia and surgery to access the bone. In some situations, a surgeon inserts a long needle through your skin and into your bone to take a biopsy. This procedure requires local anesthetics to numb the area where the needle is inserted. X-ray or other imaging scans may be used for guidance.

Treatment

The most common treatments for osteomyelitis are surgery to remove portions of bone that are infected or dead, followed by antibiotics. Hospitalization is usually necessary.

Surgery

Depending on the severity of the infection, osteomyelitis surgery may include one or more of the following procedures:

  • Drain the infected area. Opening up the area around your infected bone allows your surgeon to drain any pus or fluid that has accumulated in response to the infection.
  • Remove diseased bone and tissue. In a procedure called debridement, the surgeon removes as much of the diseased bone as possible, and takes a small margin of healthy bone to ensure that all the infected areas have been removed. Surrounding tissue that shows signs of infection also may be removed.
  • Restore blood flow to the bone. Your surgeon may fill any empty space left by the debridement procedure with a piece of bone or other tissue, such as skin or muscle, from another part of your body.

    Sometimes temporary fillers are placed in the pocket until you're healthy enough to undergo a bone graft or tissue graft. The graft helps your body repair damaged blood vessels and form new bone.

  • Remove any foreign objects. In some cases, foreign objects, such as surgical plates or screws placed during a previous surgery, may have to be removed.
  • Amputate the limb. As a last resort, surgeons may amputate the affected limb to stop the infection from spreading further.

Medications

A bone biopsy will reveal what type of germ is causing your infection, so your doctor can choose an antibiotic that works particularly well for that type of infection. The antibiotics are usually administered through a vein in your arm for at least four to six weeks.

An additional course of oral antibiotics may be needed for more-serious infections.

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.

Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and what to expect from your doctor.

What you can do

  • Be aware of any pre-appointment restrictions. At the time you make the appointment, be sure to ask if there's anything you need to do in advance, such as restrict your diet.
  • Write down any symptoms you're experiencing, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for which you scheduled the appointment.
  • Make a list of all medications, vitamins or supplements that you're taking.
  • Write down questions to ask your doctor.

For osteomyelitis, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:

  • What's the most likely cause of my symptoms?
  • Are there other possible causes for my symptoms?
  • What kinds of tests do I need? Do these tests require any special preparation?
  • What treatments are available, and which do you recommend?
  • Will surgery be necessary?
  • What types of side effects can I expect from treatment?
  • I have other health conditions. How can I best manage these conditions together?
  • Is there a generic alternative to the medicine you're prescribing?
  • Are there any brochures or other printed material that I can take home with me? What websites do you recommend visiting?

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, such as:

  • When did you first begin experiencing symptoms?
  • Do you have a fever or chills?
  • Does anything make your symptoms better or worse?
  • Have you had any cuts, scrapes or other injuries lately?
  • Have you had any surgery recently?
  • Have you ever had a joint replaced? Or have you had surgical correction of a broken bone?
  • Do you have diabetes? Do you have any foot ulcers?
Sept. 25, 2015
References
  1. Ferri FF. Osteomyelitis. In: Ferri's Clinical Advisor 2016. Philadelphia, Pa.: Mosby Elsevier; 2016. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Sept. 11, 2015.
  2. Marcdante KJ, et al. Osteomyelitis. In: Nelson Essentials of Pediatrics. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders Elsevier; 2015. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Sept. 11, 2015.
  3. Osteomyelitis. Merck Manual Professional Version. http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/musculoskeletal-and-connective-tissue-disorders/infections-of-joints-and-bones/osteomyelitis. Accessed Sept. 11, 2015.
  4. Kremers HM, et al. Trends in the epidemiology of osteomyelitis: A population-based study, 1969 to 2009. The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery. 2015;97:837.
  5. Lalani T. Overview of osteomyelitis. https://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Sept. 13, 2015.
  6. Marx JA, et al., eds. Bone and joint infections. In: Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders Elsevier; 2014. http://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Sept. 13, 2015.
  7. Radcliffe G, Osteomyelitis: A historical and basic sciences review. Orthopaedics and Trauma. In press. Accessed Sept. 13, 2015.