Osteomyelitis is an infection in a bone. Infections can reach a bone by traveling through the bloodstream or spreading from nearby tissue. Infections can also begin in the bone itself if an injury exposes the bone to germs.
Smokers and people with chronic health conditions, such as diabetes or kidney failure, are more at risk of developing osteomyelitis. People who have diabetes may develop osteomyelitis in their feet if they have foot ulcers.
Although once considered incurable, osteomyelitis can now be successfully treated. Most people need surgery to remove areas of the bone that have died. After surgery, strong intravenous antibiotics are typically needed.
Signs and symptoms of osteomyelitis include:
- Swelling, warmth and redness over the area of the infection
- Pain in the area of the infection
Sometimes osteomyelitis causes no signs and symptoms or the signs and symptoms are hard to distinguish from other problems. This may be especially true for infants, older adults and people whose immune systems are compromised.
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if you experience worsening bone pain along with fever. If you're at risk of infection because of a medical condition or recent surgery or injury, see your doctor right away if you notice signs and symptoms of an infection.
Most cases of osteomyelitis are caused by staphylococcus bacteria, types of germs commonly found on the skin or in the nose of even healthy individuals.
Germs can enter a bone in a variety of ways, including:
- The bloodstream. Germs in other parts of your body — for example, in the lungs from pneumonia or in the bladder from a urinary tract infection — can travel through your bloodstream to a weakened spot in a bone.
- Injuries. Severe puncture wounds can carry germs deep inside your body. If such an injury becomes infected, the germs can spread into a nearby bone. Germs can also enter the body if you have broken a bone so severely that part of it is sticking out through your skin.
- Surgery. Direct contamination with germs can occur during surgeries to replace joints or repair fractures.
Your bones are normally resistant to infection, but this protection lessens as you get older. Other factors that can make your bones more vulnerable to osteomyelitis may include:
Recent injury or orthopedic surgery
A severe bone fracture or a deep puncture wound gives bacteria a route to enter your bone or nearby tissue. A deep puncture wound, such as an animal bite or a nail piercing through a shoe, can also provide a pathway for infection.
Surgery to repair broken bones or replace worn joints also can accidentally open a path for germs to enter a bone. Implanted orthopedic hardware is a risk factor for infection.
When blood vessels are damaged or blocked, your body has trouble distributing the infection-fighting cells needed to keep a small infection from growing larger. What begins as a small cut can progress to a deep ulcer that may expose deep tissue and bone to infection.
Diseases that impair blood circulation include:
- Poorly controlled diabetes
- Peripheral artery disease, often related to smoking
- Sickle cell disease
Problems requiring intravenous lines or catheters
There are a number of conditions that require the use of medical tubing to connect the outside world with your internal organs. However, this tubing can also serve as a way for germs to get into your body, increasing your risk of an infection in general, which can lead to osteomyelitis.
Examples of when this type of tubing might be used include:
- Dialysis machine tubing
- Urinary catheters
- Long-term intravenous tubing, sometimes called central lines
Conditions that impair the immune system
If your immune system is affected by a medical condition or medication, you have a greater risk of osteomyelitis. Factors that may suppress your immune system include:
- Cancer treatment
- Poorly controlled diabetes
- Needing to take corticosteroids or drugs called tumor necrosis factor inhibitors
People who inject illegal drugs are more likely to develop osteomyelitis because they may use nonsterile needles and are less likely to sterilize their skin before injections.
Osteomyelitis complications may include:
- Bone death (osteonecrosis). An infection in your bone can impede blood circulation within the bone, leading to bone death. Areas where bone has died need to be surgically removed for antibiotics to be effective.
- Septic arthritis. Sometimes, infection within bones can spread into a nearby joint.
- Impaired growth. Normal growth in bones or joints in children may be affected if osteomyelitis occurs in the softer areas, called growth plates, at either end of the long bones of the arms and legs.
- Skin cancer. If your osteomyelitis has resulted in an open sore that is draining pus, the surrounding skin is at higher risk of developing squamous cell cancer.
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 help your risk of developing osteomyelitis.
In general, take precautions to avoid cuts, scrapes and animal scratches or bites, which give germs easy access to your body. If you or your child has a minor injury, clean the area immediately and apply a clean bandage. Check wounds frequently for signs of infection.