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What is osteomyelitis?

Osteomyelitis is an inflammation or swelling of bone tissue that is usually the result of an infection. It can have a sudden onset, a slow and mild onset, or may be chronic, depending on the source of the infection.

Osteomyelitis may occur for many different reasons and can affect all populations, from infants and children to the elderly. Individuals with weakened immune systems, recent trauma or diabetes are at an increased risk.


Osteomyelitis symptoms vary, depending on the cause and if it is a rapid or slow onset of infection. The following are the most common symptoms: 

  • Fever (may be high as the result of a blood infection)
  • Pain and tenderness in the affected area
  • Irritability
  • Feeling ill
  • Swelling of the affected area
  • Redness in the affected area
  • Warmth in the affected area
  • Difficulty moving joints near affected area
  • Difficulty bearing weight or walking
  • New limp


Osteomyelitis may occur as a result of a bacterial bloodstream infection, sometimes called bacteremia, or sepsis, that spreads to the bone. This type is most common in infants and children and usually affects their long bones such as the femur (thighbone) or humerus (upper arm bone).

When osteomyelitis affects adults, it often involves the vertebral bones along the spinal column. The source of the blood infection is usually staphylococcus aureus (staph), although it may be caused by a different type of bacteria or fungal organism.

Osteomyelitis can also occur from a nearby infection due to a traumatic injury, frequent medication injections, a surgical procedure, or use of a prosthetic device. In addition, individuals with diabetes who develop foot ulcers are more susceptible. In any of these situations, the organism has a direct portal of entry into the affected bone.

Individuals with weakened immune systems are more likely to develop osteomyelitis. This includes individuals with sickle cell disease, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), or individuals receiving immunosuppressive medications such as chemotherapy or steroids.

How is it diagnosed?

Osteomyelitis symptoms may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis. In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, your physician may order diagnostic procedures such as blood tests, X-rays, needle aspiration or bone biopsy, bone scans, CT or CAT scans, MRIs and ultrasound.

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