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Osteomyelitis is an infection of bone, usually caused by pyogenic bacteria or mycobacteria. It can be usefully subclassifed on the basis of the causative organism, the route, duration and anatomic location of the infection. more...

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Generally microorganisms may be disseminated to bone hematogenously (i.e., via the blood stream), spread contiguously to bone from local areas of infection, such as cellulitis, or be introduced by penetrating trauma including iatrogenic causes such as joint replacements or internal fixation of fractures. Leukocytes then enter the infected area, and in their attempt to engulf the infectious organisms, release enzymes that lyse bone. Pus spreads into the bone's blood vessels, impairing the flow, and areas of devitalized infected bone, known as sequestra, form the basis of a chronic infection. On histologic examination, these areas of necrotic bone are the basis for distinguishing between acute osteomyelitis and chronic osteomyelitis. Osteomyelitis is an infective process which encompasses all of the bone (osseous) components, including the bone marrow. When it is chronic it can lead to bone sclerosis and deformity.

Osteomyelitis often requires prolonged antibiotic therapy, lasting a matter of weeks or months, and may require surgical debridement. Severe cases may lead to the loss of a limb.

Because of the particulars of their blood supply, the tibia, the femur, the humerus, and the vertebral bodies are especially prone to osteomyelitis.

The vast predominance of hematogenously seeded osteomyelitis is caused by Staphylococcus aureus. Escherichia coli, and streptococci are other common pathogens. In some subpopulations, including intravenous drug users and splenectomized patients, Gram negative bacteria, including enteric bacilli, are significant pathogens.

Staphylococcus aureus is also the most common organism seen in osteomyelitis seeded from areas of contiguous infection, but here Gram negative organisms and anaerobes are somewhat more common, and mixed infections may be seen.

In osteomyelitis involving the vertebral bodies, about half the cases are due to Staphylococcus aureus, and the other half are due to tuberculosis (spread hematogenously from the lungs). Tubercular osteomyelitis of the spine was so common before the initiation of effective antitubercular therapy that it acquired a special name, Pott's disease, by which it is sometimes still known.


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From Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, 4/6/01 by Rosalyn S. Carson-DeWitt


Osteomyelitis refers to a bone infection, almost always caused by a bacteria. Over time, the result can be destruction of the bone itself.


Bone infections may occur at any age. Certain conditions increase the risk of developing such an infection, including sickle cell anemia, injury, the presence of a foreign body (such as a bullet or a screw placed to hold together a broken bone), intravenous drug use (such as heroin), diabetes, kidney dialysis, surgical procedures to bony areas, untreated infections of tissue near a bone (for example, extreme cases of untreated sinus infections have led to osteomyelitis of the bones of the skull).

Causes & symptoms

Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium, is the most common organism involved in osteomyelitis. Other types of organisms include the mycobacterium which causes tuberculosis, a type of Salmonella bacteria in patients with sickle cell anemia, Pseudomonas aeurginosa in drug addicts, and organisms which usually reside in the gastrointestinal tract in the elderly. Extremely rarely, the viruses which cause chickenpox and smallpox have been found to cause a viral osteomyelitis.

There are two main ways that infecting bacteria find their way to bone, resulting in the development of osteomyelitis. These include:

  • Spread via the bloodstream; 95% of these types of infections are due to Staphylococcus aureus. In this situation, the bacteria travels through the bloodstream to reach the bone. In children, the most likely site of infection is within one of the long bones, particularly the thigh bone (femur), one of the bones of the lower leg (tibia), or the bone of the upper arm (humerus). This is because in children these bones have particularly extensive blood circulation, making them more susceptible to invasion by bacteria. Different patterns of blood circulation in adults make the long bones less well-served by the circulatory system. These bones are therefore unlikely to develop osteomyelitis in adult patients. Instead, the bones of the spine (vertebrae) receive a lot of blood flow. Therefore, osteomyelitis in adults is most likely to affect a vertebra. Drug addicts may have osteomyelitis in the pubic bone or clavicle.
  • Spread from adjacent infected soft tissue; about 50% of all such cases are infected by Staphylococcus aureus. This often occurs in cases where recent surgery or injury has result in a soft tissue infection. The bacteria can then spread to nearby bone, resulting in osteomyelitis. Patients with diabetes are particularly susceptible to this source of osteomyelitis. The diabetes interferes with both nerve sensation and good blood flow to the feet. Diabetic patients are therefore prone to developing poorly healing wounds to their feet, which can then spread to bone, causing osteomyelitis.

Acute osteomyelitis refers to an infection which develops and peaks over a relatively short period of time. In children, acute osteomyelitis usually presents itself as pain in the affected bone, tenderness to pressure over the infected area, fever and chills. Patients who develop osteomyelitis, due to spread from a nearby area of soft tissue infection, may only note poor healing of the original wound or infection.

Adult patients with osteomyelitis of the spine usually have a longer period of dull, aching pain in the back, and no fever. Some patients note pain in the chest, abdomen, arm, or leg. This occurs when the inflammation in the spine causes pressure on a nerve root serving one of these other areas. The lower back is the most common location for osteomyelitis. When caused by tuberculosis, osteomyelitis usually affects the thoracic spine (that section of the spine running approximately from the base of the neck down to where the ribs stop).

When osteomyelitis is not properly treated, a chronic (long-term) type of infection may occur. In this case, the infection may wax and wane indefinitely, despite treatment during its active phases. An abnormal opening in the skin overlaying the area of bone infection (called a sinus tract) may occasionally drain pus. This type of smoldering infection may also result in areas of dead bone, called sequestra. These areas occur when the infection interferes with blood flow to a particular part of the bone. Such sequestra lack cells called osteocytes, which in normal bone are continuously involved in the process of producing bony material.


Diagnosis of osteomyelitis involves several procedures. Blood is usually drawn and tested to demonstrate an increased number of the infection-fighting white blood cells (particularly elevated in children with acute osteomyelitis). Blood is also cultured in a laboratory, a process which allows any bacteria present to multiply. A specimen from the culture is then specially treated, and examined under a microscope to try to identify the causative bacteria.

Injection of certain radioactive elements into the bloodstream, followed by a series of x-ray pictures, called a scan (radionuclide scanning), will reveal areas of bone inflammation. Another type of scan used to diagnose osteomyelitis is called magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI

When pockets of pus are available, or overlaying soft tissue infection exists, these can serve as sources for samples which can be cultured to allow identification of bacteria present. A long, sharp needle can be used to obtain a specimen of bone (biopsy), which can then be tested to attempt to identify any bacteria present.


Antibiotics are medications used to kill bacteria. These medications are usually given through a needle in a vein (intravenously) for at least part of the time. In children, these antibiotics can be given by mouth after initial treatment by vein. In adults, four to six weeks of intravenous antibiotic treatment is usually recommended, along with bed-rest for part or all of that time. Occasionally, a patient will have such extensive ostemyelitis that surgery will be required to drain any pockets of pus, and to clean the infected area.

Alternative treatment

General recommendations for the treatment of infections include increasing vitamin supplements, such as vitamins A and C. Liquid garlic extract is sometimes suggested. Guided imagery can help induce relaxation and improve pain, both of which are considered to improve healing. Herbs such as echinacea (Echinacea spp.), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), and myrrh (Commiphora molmol) are all suggested for infections. Juice therapists recommend drinking combinations of carrot, celery, beet, and cantaloupe juices. A variety of homeopathic remedies may be helpful, especially those used to counter inflammation.


Prognosis varies depending on how quickly an infection is identified, and what other underlying conditions exist to complicate the infection. With quick, appropriate treatment, only about 5% of all cases of acute osteomyelitis will eventually become chronic osteomyelitis. Patients with chronic osteomyelitis may require antibiotics periodically for the rest of their lives.


About the only way to have any impact on the development of osteomyelitis involves excellent care of any wounds or injuries.

Key Terms

A pus-filled pocket of infection.
The thighbone.
The bone of the upper arm.
Pertaining to the area bounded by the rib cage.
One of the two bones of the lower leg.

Further Reading

For Your Information


  • Maguire, James H. "Osteomyelitis." In Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, edited by Anthony S. Fauci, et al. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998.
  • Ray, C. George. "Bone and Joint Infections." In Sherris Medical Microbiology: An Introduction to Infectious Diseases, edited by Kenneth J. Ryan. Norwalk, CT: Appleton and Lange, 1994.
  • Stoffman, Phyllis. The Family Guide to Preventing and Treating 100 Infectious Diseases.New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1995.


  • Calhoun, Jason H., et al. "Osteomyelitis: Diagnosis, Staging, Management." Patient Care 32(January 30, 1998): 93+.
  • Lew, Daniel P. "Osteomyelitis." The New England Journal of Medicine 336(April 3, 1997): 999+.
  • Nelson, John D. "Toward Simple but Safe Management of Osteomyelitis." Pediatrics 99(June 1997): 883+.
  • Peltola, Heikki, et al. "Simplified Treatment of Acute Staphylococcal Osteomyelitis of Childhood." Pediatrics 99(June 1997): 846+.

Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Gale Research, 1999.

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