What is osteomyelitis?

Osteomyelitis is a bacterial, or fungal, infection of the bone. Osteomyelitis affects about 2 out of every 10,000 people. If left untreated, the infection can become chronic and cause a loss of blood supply to the affected bone. When this happens, it can lead to the eventual death of the bone tissue.

Who is affected by osteomyelitis?

Osteomyelitis can affect both adults and children. The bacteria or fungus that can cause osteomyelitis, however, differs among age groups. In adults, osteomyelitis often affects the vertebrae and the pelvis. In children, osteomyelitis usually affects the adjacent ends of long bones. Long bones (bones in the arms or legs) are large, dense bones that provide strength, structure and mobility. They include the femur and tibia in the legs and the humerus and radius in the arms.

Osteomyelitis is not more common in a particular race or gender. However, some people are more at risk for developing the disease, including:

  • People with diabetes.
  • Patients receiving hemodialysis.
  • People with weakened immune systems.
  • People with sickle cell disease.
  • Intravenous drug abusers.
  • The elderly.

What causes osteomyelitis?

It can be caused by a variety of microbial agents (most common in staphylococcus aureus) and situations, including:

  • An open injury to the bone, such as an open fracture with the bone ends coming out through the skin.
  • A minor trauma, which can lead to a blood clot around the bone and then a secondary infection from seeding of bacteria.
  • Bacteria in the bloodstream (bacteremia), which is deposited in a focal (localized) area of the bone. This bacterial site in the bone then grows, resulting in destruction of the bone. However, new bone often forms around the site.
  • A chronic open wound or soft tissue infection can eventually extend down to the bone surface, leading to a direct bone infection.

What are the symptoms of osteomyelitis?

The symptoms of osteomyelitis can include:

  • Pain and/or tenderness in the infected area.
  • Swelling, redness and warmth in the infected area.
  • Fever.
  • Nausea, secondarily from being ill with infection.
  • General discomfort, uneasiness, or ill feeling.
  • Drainage of pus (thick yellow fluid) through the skin.

Additional symptoms that may be associated with this disease include:

  • Excessive sweating.
  • Chills.
  • Lower back pain (if the spine is involved).
  • Swelling of the ankles, feet, and legs.
  • Loss or decrease of motion of a joint.
  • Changes in gait (walking pattern that is a painful, yielding a limp) or unwillingness to bear weight in children.

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