What Causes Osteomyelitis?

Osteomyelitis is an infection of the bone. It is a rare but serious condition that affects two out of every 10,000 people and is most frequently caused by staphylococcus bacteria, a common type of germ found on the skin or in the nose.

There are three ways that staph, and other types of germs, can get into the bone:

  • The bloodstream — Germs that have already been introduced to the bloodstream can sometimes enter the bone through a worn or weakened area.
  • Injuries — Severe puncture wounds can easily get infected, and these germs may then spread to a nearby bone. In the case of a compound fracture, in which the bone is sticking out through the skin, the bone may become infected through direct exposure to outside germs. About 80 percent of all osteomyelitis cases develop from an open wound.
  • Surgery — Bones can be contaminated by germs during surgeries like joint replacements or fracture repairs. It is also possible, though uncommon, to develop a bone infection after tooth extraction.

Sometimes osteomyelitis causes no symptoms, or appears only as generic symptoms that mimic many other conditions — fever, irritability, and fatigue, for example.

Other osteomyelitis symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Tenderness, redness and warmth in the area of the infection
  • Swelling around the infected bone
  • Lost range of motion

As people get older, their bones become less resistant to infection. Other osteomyelitis risk factors include:

  • Recent injury or orthopaedic surgery — Severe puncture wounds, bone fractures, surgical incisions and implanted orthopaedic hardware give germs a pathway to enter the bone.
  • Circulation disorders — Damaged or blocked blood vessels make it difficult for the body to distribute infection-fighting cells, so even small cuts can progress to large sores that expose bones and tissues to infections. Poorly controlled diabetes, peripheral artery disease (often related to smoking), and sickle cell diseases all impair blood circulation.
  • Problems that require intravenous lines or catheters — Medical tubing used in intravenous therapy can increase a person’s risk of developing a blood infection that leads to osteomyelitis.
  • Conditions that impair the immune system — Poorly controlled diabetes, cancer treatments and corticosteroids compromise the immune system and make it difficult for the body to fight infections that could lead to osteomyelitis.
  • Illicit drugs — People who use illicit drugs may introduce germs and bacteria into their bodies by using nonsterile needles or by not sterilizing their skin prior to injection.

Adults can suffer from either acute or chronic osteomyelitis, both of which typically affect their pelvis or vertebrae.

Chronic recurrent multifocal osteomyelitis, also sometimes called chronic nonbacterial osteomyelitis, is an inflammatory bone condition in which the immune system wrongly attacks normal bone, causing pain, redness and swelling. It usually begins in childhood between the ages of eight and fourteen and causes inflammatory flare-ups for many years. Though symptoms commonly decrease over time, medications and occupational therapy are often used to manage the effects of chronic recurrent multifocal osteomyelitis in children and young adults.

Osteomyelitis Complications

Modern treatment options are often sufficient for addressing bone infections, but osteomyelitis complications can sometimes occur. The infection and resulting inflammation may block blood vessels, thereby reducing the flow of oxygen and nutrients, causing the bone and surrounding tissue to die. This causes chronic osteomyelitis, which is severe, persistent and sometimes incapacitating.

Other osteomyelitis complications include:

  • Bone abscess
  • Bone necrosis (bone death)
  • Septic arthritis
  • Impaired growth
  • Spread of infection
  • Inflammation of soft tissue (cellulitis)
  • Blood poisoning (septicemia)
  • Skin cancer
  • Chronic infection that doesn’t respond well to treatment

In some cases, osteomyelitis complications can be severe and even life-threatening, requiring extensive treatment and long-term acute care. In order to prevent these complications, it is critical for anyone experiencing bone infection symptoms to see a doctor immediately.

Osteomyelitis Recovery

The most common treatments for bone infections and osteomyelitis complications are surgery and antibiotics.

Depending on the infection’s severity, osteomyelitis surgery may include procedures that:

  • Drain the infected area — Through an opening around the infected bone, a surgeon will drain pus or fluid that has accumulated as a result of the infection.
  • Remove diseased bone and tissue — Surgeons will remove diseased bone and possibly some surrounding tissue in a procedure called debridement. A small piece of healthy bone is often removed as well, to ensure that all of the infected areas have been removed.
  • Restore blood flow to the bone — The debridement procedure leaves empty space, which is filled by a piece of bone or tissue from another part of the body.
  • Remove foreign objects — Objects like plates and screws that have been surgically implanted may have to be removed.
  • Amputate the limb — In severe osteomyelitis cases, surgeons may have to amputate the limb to prevent the infection from spreading.

Bone biopsies are usually performed on osteomyelitis patients to reveal what type of bacteria is causing the infection. This enables doctors to select the appropriate antibiotic, which is generally given through intravenous therapy for a period of up to six weeks or more.

Osteomyelitis is a complicated medical condition that often requires care for an extended period of time. Kindred transitional hospitals have a team approach to osteomyelitis recovery, including interdisciplinary specialists that create customized care plans to treat bone infection symptoms and osteomyelitis complications.

Such a plan might include:

  • IV antibiotics
  • Pain management
  • Wound care
  • Smoking cessation
  • Disease management
  • Physical therapy

“Osteomyelitis can lead to bone tissue death if it’s not treated quickly and effectively,” says Dr. Sean Muldoon, Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer of Kindred Healthcare’s Hospital Division. “Because osteomyelitis symptoms are similar to those of many other conditions, diagnosis can be difficult, causing delays that may lead to serious osteomyelitis complications. Kindred Hospitals specialize in these types of medically complex conditions, with experienced, interdisciplinary teams that can quickly identify signs and symptoms of osteomyelitis, as well treatment plans that result in more successful recoveries.”


Success Spotlight: Edmund's Story

Edmund, 66, was admitted to a short-term acute care facility for sepsis, right lower extremity cellulitis, type 2 diabetes, acute renal failure, and rhabdomyolysis — the release of muscle fibre fragments into the bloodstream. Edmund also had a history of a slow healing foot ulcer and osteomyelitis that required extensive antibiotic treatment.

At the end of his stay at the traditional hospital, Edmund required extended recovery time and was transferred to Kindred Hospital for continued care. Upon evaluation by the Kindred interdisciplinary team, a treatment plan was developed, including wound management, rehabilitation, and antibiotics to treat the osteomyelitis, sepsis and cellulitis.

Prior to admission, Edmund lived at home with a supportive wife. He owned an electric scooter for transportation around his community, a rolling walker and a standard cane. Edmund reported requiring frequent rests during any activities at home, minimal assistance from his wife for toileting, and an overall sedentary lifestyle. Though he had lived independently, he reported having difficulties with activities of daily living, mobility and transfers at home, due to significantly impaired functional activity tolerance.

When he arrived at Kindred Hospital, Edmund had grade 3+ pitting edema to both legs, required supervision for all mobility and transfers in his room, and could walk only 10 feet with a rolling walker. He required minimal assistance for dressing and moderate assistance for toileting activities.

After 30 days of intense wound management, antibiotic therapy and physical and occupational rehabilitation, Edmund was able to walk more than 500 feet with a rolling walker, requiring only 2-3 rests. He had achieved modified independence (independence with the use of an assistive device) for dressing, toileting, mobility and transfers. Edmund’s foot ulcer was 100% healed with no signs of osteomyelitis, and he was completely discharged from antibiotics.

Upon discharge, Edmund and his wife happily reported that his functional status, activity tolerance, and independence in activities of daily living were significantly better after his stay at Kindred.