What is osteomyelitis?
Osteomyelitis is an infection of the bone that can be very painful. It can often be treated with antibiotics if it’s diagnosed early enough. If it’s not detected early, or the infection becomes severe, surgery is usually needed.
What causes osteomyelitis?
Osteomyelitis can be caused by bacteria or, less commonly, fungus.
Bacteria can get into the bone via the bloodstream, often from an infection in another part of the body, or from an injury that’s caused a deep cut in your skin, like a broken bone or deep skin ulcer.
Factors that can increase your risk of developing a bone infection include having:
- Recently broken a bone
- Recent surgery on a bone
- An injury or a wound
- A screw in the bone or an artificial hip
- A poor immune system (if you’re having chemotherapy or have another serious illness)
- A history of osteomyelitis
- Diabetes (especially if you have a foot ulcer or cuts on your feet)
- Certain types of blood disorders
Osteomyelitis usually causes pain in the long bones in your legs, but it can also affect other bones, like those in your back or arms.
The following symptoms can develop over an area of your bone:
- Pain and tenderness
- Swelling and redness
- A tender lump
- A warm sensation
Other symptoms can include:
- High temperature
- Generally feeling unwell
- Pus coming out of a fracture wound
Depending on which bone is affected, the GP may be able to diagnose osteomyelitis. They will start by doing a physical examination around the affected bone to assess any swelling or tenderness.
Blood tests are also helpful to show if your body is fighting an infection and may also detect bacteria from the bone infection if you have one. This can help to identify the type of bacteria causing your infection, which is important in finding the most appropriate treatment.
Other tests that can help to diagnose osteomyelitis include:
- Scans of the bone – Like X-rays, MRI, and CT scans
- Biopsy – A bone biopsy takes a small sample of fluid from the bone, which is tested to identify the bacteria causing the infection
The main treatment for osteomyelitis is antibiotics. These are usually given intravenously (directly into your vein) in hospital until you start to feel better. At this stage, you might take tablets at home for the rest of the course.
The length of treatment time depends on how severe the infection is, and how quickly it was discovered and treated. The course usually lasts around 4 to 6 weeks, or up to 12 weeks for more severe infections.
In some cases, surgery will be needed to treat osteomyelitis. For example, if:
- An abscess (build-up of pus) develops in your bone
- The infection is pressing on something else in your body
- You’ve had the infection for a long time
- There’s damage to your bone
Surgery can include a procedure called debridement, where the damaged part of bone is removed. Sometimes, surgery can involve taking muscle and skin from another part of your body and using it to repair the affected area.
The sooner you discover and treat osteomyelitis, the better your chances of a complete recovery. If it’s found and treated within the first 3 to 5 days of infection, it often clears up completely.
In severe cases, osteomyelitis can lead to complications like:
- An abscess (build-up of pus) developing in the bone and the surrounding tissue
- Sepsis (serious blood infection)
- Chronic osteomyelitis, an ongoing infection of the bone that is hard to treat and clear
- Reviewed by:
Dr Rhianna McClymont
Lead GP at Livi
- Last updated: