Osteomyelitis

Osteomyelitis is a painful bone infection. It usually goes away if treated early with antibiotics. If not, it can cause permanent damage. See your GP if you or your child have the symptoms listed below.

Symptoms of osteomyelitis

Symptoms of osteomyelitis include:

  • bone pain, local to the infected area
  • the area of infected bone will be tender to touch
  • a very high temperature (or you feel hot and shivery) and feel generally unwell
  • inflammation - swelling, redness and a warm sensation over an area of bone

When to see your GP

You should see your GP if you have:

  • the symptoms listed above
  • had osteomyelitis before and you think symptoms have come back

You should take your child to your GP if:

  • they don't want to use an arm or leg and seem irritable – young children don't always get a high temperature with osteomyelitis

Osteomyelitis can permanently damage bones if not treated quickly.

Your GP might be able to diagnose a bone infection without tests.

You might need a blood test, or to go to hospital for:

  • a scan
  • a biopsy, where a small sample of fluid from the bone is sent for testing

Causes of osteomyelitis

Osteomyelitis is an infection that most often causes pain in the long bones in the legs.

Other bones, such as those in the back or arms, can also be affected.

Anyone can develop osteomyelitis.

You're more at risk of getting an infection in a bone if you have:

  • recently broken (fractured) a bone
  • been injured or have a wound
  • an artificial hip, or a screw in a bone
  • recently had any surgery on a bone
  • a weakened immune system – for example, because of chemotherapy or you have another serious illness
  • had osteomyelitis before
  • diabetes, especially if you also have a foot ulcer

Sometimes an infection in the blood affects the bone.

Treatment for osteomyelitis

Osteomyelitis is treated with antibiotics. You may have to stay in hospital to get antibiotics directly into a vein (intravenously).

When you start to get better you might be able to take antibiotic tablets at home.

It's important to finish a course of antibiotics even if you start to feel better.

If the infection is treated quickly (within 3 to 5 days of it starting), it often clears up completely.

You can take painkillers to ease the pain. If the infection is in a long bone (such as an arm or leg), you may be fitted with a splint so you don't move it as often.

Surgery for osteomyelitis

If you have been diagnosed with osteomyelitis, the health professional looking after your care will discuss treatment options with you.

 You'll usually need an operation if:

  • a build-up of pus (abscess) develops in the bone – the pus in an abscess needs to be drained
  • the infection presses against something else – for example, the spinal cord

If the infection has damaged the bone, you'll need surgery (known as debridement) to remove the damaged part.

Debridement can leave an empty space in the bone. This space may be packed with antibiotic dressing.

Sometimes more than one operation is needed to treat the infection. Muscle and skin from another part of the body might be used to repair the area near the affected bone.

Diabetes and osteomyelitis

It's very important to look after your feet if you have diabetes.

If you have poorly controlled diabetes, you can lose sensation in your feet and not notice small cuts. These small cuts could develop into an infection that spreads to the bone.

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

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