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Osteomyelitis is an infection of the bone. Like the other tissues of the body, it is possible for bone to become infected. 

While rare, osteomyelitis can have serious complications, such as osteonecrosis (death of bone tissue). 

In most cases it is a type of bacteria called Staphylococcus aureus that causes osteomyelitis. In children, bacteria usually infect soft spots called growth plates after having travelled via the bloodstream from other parts of the body (for example, via a urinary tract infection). Infected wounds over bone offer another route for bacteria. 

A weakened immune system, a circulation disorder and recent orthopaedic surgery are all risk factors for osteomyelitis.

What are its symptoms?

Osteomyelitis symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Malaise (a general feeling of being unwell)
  • Pain, redness, warmth or swelling around the affected area
  • A decrease in the range of motion around the affected area
  • Irritability in young children

Osteomyelitis can also be asymptomatic (showing no symptoms), or signs of bone infection may be similar to other conditions and overlooked. This is why it’s wise to seek medical attention at any sign of infection, particularly if you are somehow at risk for osteomyelitis.

How is it diagnosed? 

If a patient presents with signs of infection, there are several tests that a doctor will conduct that may point towards an osteomyelitis diagnosis. While blood tests can’t specifically indicate an infection in the bone, they can indicate the presence of infection in the body and help identify the causative organism. 

Imaging tests such as X-ray, CT (computerised tomography) and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans then allow doctors to see an abnormality around the bones. 

Once a possible area of osteomyelitis is identified, a bone biopsy will be needed to retrieve a small sample of the bone for laboratory examination. This can then confirm the diagnosis and bacterium involved. This procedure is performed under local anaesthetic.

What are your treatment options? 

Osteomyelitis treatment focuses on eliminating the infection and, in more severe cases, surgically removing dead or infected bone tissue or draining areas of localised infection such as abscesses on the bone. 

Surgical treatment for osteomyelitis may also require a bone graft where bone tissue is removed from a patient’s own healthy bone and transplanted onto the unhealthy site. Intravenous antibiotics will be administered for a period of four to eight weeks with another course of oral antibiotics to follow, if deemed necessary. 

In the most extreme cases, where treatment has been left too late, amputation may be the only remaining option.

Can it be prevented? 

Preventative precautions to avoid infection in general may be able to help prevent osteomyelitis. This is particularly important if there are any risk factors present that may increase your risk, such as recent orthopaedic surgery or injury. 

Keep all wounds clean and keep an eye on them for signs of infection. Also be sure to treat infections elsewhere in the body promptly and to always use antibiotics exactly as instructed by your healthcare practitioner.

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in July 2016