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Can you really get a bone infection?

A bone infection can be pretty serious. The main cause of bone infections is the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus, also called staph.
A bone infection can be pretty serious. The main cause of bone infections is the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus, also called staph.
Jeannot Oslvet/Getty Images

An infection occurs when organisms with the potential to cause disease enter the body. They can cause swelling, redness, pain and a heightened body temperature.

Usually when you talk about infections, you mean something like an ear infection, or maybe a cut that got infected — basically, some germs got into a squishy part of the body. It makes sense; our bodies are made up mostly of soft tissues, organs and blood, so usually that's where we get infections. However, your squishy bits aren't the only places that can wind up infected. Although you may not hear about it much, you can also get an infection inside your bones.

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Bone infections (or osteomyelitis) affect about two in every 10,000 people, and they're twice as common among men [sources: Cleveland Clinic, PDRhealth]. Osteomyelitis can happen to any bone in the body. In adults, it typically occurs in the spinal or pelvis areas. Whereas adults are more likely to have chronic osteomyelitis, children tend to get acute infections, usually in the long-bone areas such as the legs or arms that can impair bone growth.

So, how do you contract a bone infection? It can travel through the bloodstream, spread from nearby tissue, or settle into the bone itself.

Bacteria that enter the body can travel all over and settle in just about anywhere. For example, if you have damaged heart valves, bacteria might flock there because they know the heart is too weak to fight them off [source: LifeBridge Health]. Think of your body as an army and the bacteria as the opposing troops; they look for the weak spots and exploit them.

Your bones are built to protect themselves against infection, but sometimes bacteria get in anyway. If a contaminated object penetrates your bone (think a nail going through your shoe or a deep dog bite), infection can set in. People who suffer severe broken bones — where the bone penetrates the skin — are also vulnerable to bacteria entering the bone directly. Bacteria can enter the joints and slowly eat away at them, causing arthritis or permanent joint damage. Very rarely, if a bone infection continuously drains through a sinus tract for a long period of time, cancer can develop [source: LifeBridge Health].

People with diabetes, sickle cell anemia or poor circulation may have damaged blood vessels that allow bacteria to overpower infection-fighting cells. People with poorly controlled diabetes can develop serious skin infections — especially in the feet — that make them vulnerable to osteomyelitis. Among children, a common cause of osteomyelitis is an existing infection making its way through the bloodstream to the growth plates, or soft ends of the bones and joints — a condition known as hematogenous osteomyelitis [source: PDRhealth]. Other people susceptible to bone infections include those with AIDS and HIV, sickle cell anemia, rheumatoid arthritis and suppressed immune systems.

A bone infection can be pretty serious. The main culprit when it comes to bone infections is the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus, also called staph, but other types of bacteria and even fungal infections can be the bad guys, too.

Symptoms of a bone infection include:

  • Fever
  • Redness and swelling at the site
  • Bone pain
  • Nausea
  • Pus at infection site
  • Increased white blood cell count, signifying infection

As horrible as all of this sounds, there are ways you can reduce your risk.

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An X-ray of a person with a bone infection (osteomyelitis)
An X-ray of a person with a bone infection (osteomyelitis)
BSIP/UIG via Getty Images

Once considered incurable, osteomyelitis can be treated successfully today. Doctors' diagnostic methods include blood tests, bone biopsies, X-rays and bone scans. The bone may be immobilized with a splint or cast. The infection itself is first treated with antibiotics. Because most cases of osteomyelitis come from antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria, the condition can be difficult to treat. Sometimes a four- to six-week course of IV antibiotics is necessary.

If the source of the bone infection is an open wound, your doctor may also need to drain the wound or abscess. If allowed to remain unchecked, an abscess can cut off blood supply to the bone, which can lead to bone death.

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More severe cases of osteomyelitis require more extreme treatment. They can require surgery to scrape the infection from the bone or remove any dead parts of the bone. Your doctor may recommend a skin graft to remove infected skin and replace it with healthy skin from another part of the body. Bone grafts are another option. In a worst-case scenario, doctors may need to amputate the affected limb.

Patients should be prepared for follow-up appointments with their doctor, who might order more lab work and imaging scans to check their progress.

If your immune system is compromised, a bone infection can recur. It's important to take every measure to prevent osteomyelitis in the first place. There are several precautions you can take:

  • Quit smoking, which increases blood circulation.
  • Keep up to date on immunizations, such as flu shots.
  • Get regular exercise and follow a healthy diet (under your doctor's supervision).
  • Avoid alcohol or drink only in moderation.
  • Follow your doctor's instructions to keep diabetes under control.
  • Don't use intravenous drugs.

If you suffer an injury that breaks the skin, take great care to treat it properly. Clean it thoroughly, cover it with a clean bandage, and if it gets infected or doesn't heal quickly, see your doctor immediately.

Although bone infections are uncommon, they happen. If you're at risk, make sure you take all necessary precautions and get medical attention if you experience symptoms of osteomyelitis to avoid greater injury.

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Sources

  • Cleveland Clinic. "Osteomyelitis." 2014. (Sept. 15, 2014) http://my.clevelandclinic.org/orthopaedics-rheumatology/diseases-conditions/hic-osteomyelitis.aspx
  • LifeBridge Health, Rubin Institute for Advanced Orthopedics. "Bone Infection: Consequences." (July 15, 2015) http://www.boneinfection.org/RIAO/BoneInfectionConsequences.aspx
  • Mayo Clinic. "Osteomyelitis." Nov. 20, 2012. (Sept. 15, 2014) http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/osteomyelitis/basics/definition/con-20025518
  • Mount Sinai Hospital. "Osteomyelitis." June 2015. (July 15, 2015) http://www.mountsinai.org/patient-care/health-library/diseases-and-conditions/osteomyelitis
  • NHS Choices. "Osteomyelitis." NHS Inform. Oct. 4, 2011. (Sept. 15, 2014) http://www.nhsinform.com/health-library/articles/o/osteomyelitis/prevention
  • PDRHealth. "Bone Infection." 2014. (Sept. 15, 2014) http://www.pdrhealth.com/diseases/bone-infection

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