Osteomyelitis was once an incurable bone infection. With modern medical options, it is now a treatable disease.
What is Osteomyelitis?
Osteomyelitis refers to an infection in a bone, typically caused by infections in the blood or nearby tissues. A urinary tract infection or pneumonia can attack a weak bone. Sometimes, this infection can originate in the bone, especially after an injury where the bone might be exposed to germs. This can happen in puncture wounds, animal bites, or through broken bones that pierce the skin.
For children, the long leg bones and upper arm are most likely to be affected. Children are vulnerable in their growth plates (softer bone areas).
The spine and vertebrae are most likely to be affected in adults. People with circulation problems may get this bone disease, including those with sickle cell disease or peripheral arterial disease, as well as diabetes. Diabetics may have foot ulcers and osteomyelitis in the feet. People who have had recent surgery or injuries may be at risk. Intravenous treatments can also lead to this bone infection, as they can introduce infections into the body. This would impact those on dialysis, people with “central lines” (long-term IV tubing), and people who use catheters. When the immune system is severely impaired, there can be a risk of osteomyelitis, including organ transplant patients, those on chemotherapy, and people on corticosteroids or TNF inhibitors. Intravenous drug users may develop this condition.
Symptoms of Osteomyelitis
Symptoms of osteomyelitis include pain, swelling, and redness in the area of infection, irritability and lethargy, and fever and chills. Complications of this condition include bone death (osteonecrosis), impaired growth, septic arthritis, and squamous cell cancer (skin cancer).1 In most cases, staphylococcus aureus, a staph bacteria, is the cause of osteomyelitis. In children, the disorder is acute, and it “comes on quickly, is easier to treat, and overall turns out better”. In adults, this disorder can be acute or chronic. Osteomyelitis affects “only two out of every 10,000 people”.2
X-rays, CT scans, and MRI can all be used to diagnose osteomyelitis. There is no specific blood test for this disorder, but elevated white blood cells may indicate a presence of infection. The best way to diagnose this condition is via bone biopsy, which can reveal the germ that caused the infection. Standard treatments include removing dead parts of the bone and strong antibiotics. Because of these treatments, this bone infection is no longer incurable. The antibiotics are typically given, via an IV, for about 6 weeks. The surgical process can include draining the infection, removing diseased tissue and bone, restoring blood flow, removing foreign objects (if any), and amputation (as a last resort). Some patients may need to be put in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber to “help get more oxygen to the bone and promote healing”.3 Prevention of osteomyelitis is best done by keeping things sanitized. If there is a wound, it should be washed completely, for example. Doctors also need to know if a patient has chronic osteomyelitis. The sooner it is treated, the better. Early detection can help prevent acute osteomyelitis from becoming chronic.4