Osteomyelitis is a condition which refers to an infection of the bone; commonly infections are caused by bacteria, but they may also be caused by fungal infections. There are 3 main types of osteomyelitis; these include:

  • Acute osteomyelitis: this occurs when the bone infection develops within 2 weeks of another infection or injury
  • Sub-acute osteomyelitis: this occurs when the bone infection develops within 4-8 weeks of another infection or injury
  • Chronic osteomyelitis: this occurs when the bone infection develops after a period of 8 weeks or more

Infections may also develop as a result of an underlying health condition.

What causes osteomyelitis?

Osteomyelitis may be caused by different factors; these include underlying health conditions, injury to the bone or an infection that spread from the blood and causes damage to the bone. Usually, the body is able to fight off infections that threaten the health of the bone but the bones are less resistant to certain infections. A number of risk factors for osteomyelitis have been identified; these include:

  • Weak immune system (the immune system may become compromised as a result of a condition such as HIV, a poor diet or medications and treatments including chemotherapy and steroids
  • Diabetes: diabetes can cause damage to the nerves (as a result of the raised levels of glucose in the blood). People with diabetes are also susceptible to foot problems, which can contribute to osteomyelitis.
  • Injury: injury to the bones, such as fractures, increases the risk of suffering from osteoporosis.
  • Poor circulation: people with poor circulation may not have the necessary supply of white blood cells and are therefore prone to conditions, such as osteomyelitis.
  • Drug abuse: people who use intravenous illegal drugs are at risk of developing osteomyelitis

Symptoms of osteomyelitis

Symptoms differ according to the type of osteomyelitis:

  • Acute osteomyelitis: symptoms include high temperature, pain, warmth and tenderness in the bone and a restricted range of movement surrounding the bone.
  • Sub-acute and chronic osteomyelitis: symptoms include redness and inflammation around the bone, pain in the bone, changes in the appearance of the affected bone, loss of movement around the affected bone and a leak of pus or fluid from around the bone.

Treatment for osteomyelitis

Acute osteomyelitis is usually treated very effectively with a course of antibiotic or antifungal medication; antifungal medication is usually given intravenously. Sub-acute osteomyelitis may be treated in the same way as acute osteomyelitis if there has been no subsequent damage to the bone. If damage to the bone has occurred, a course of antibiotics or antifungal medication will usually be prescribed and surgery may be required; most cases of chronic osteomyelitis are also treated in this way. Surgery is carried out to repair damage to the affected bone; if there has been widespread damage to the bone, the damaged sections of the bone may have to be removed (this is known as debridement) and replaced with grafts from bones in other parts of the body.

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