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Osteomyelitis is a bone infection caused by bacteria, a fungus or other germs. The most common cause of osteomyelitis is the Staphylococcus aureus bacterium, commonly called "staph."

There are several ways that bones can become infected:

  • Through a wound on the skin, muscles or tendons
  • After a fracture in which the ends of the bone pierce the skin
  • Through the bloodstream from an infection in another part of the body
  • After surgery on the bone, especially if the surgery involved placement of metal hardware
  • After an ear or sinus infection, if the infection spreads to surrounding bones or soft tissues (this is called skull base osteomyelitis)

Osteomyelitis symptoms

Symptoms of osteomyelitis might include the following:

  • Fever, sweating and chills
  • Bone pain or tenderness
  • Severe back pain
  • Swelling and redness at the infection site
  • Swelling of ankles, feet and legs
  • Lethargy, malaise or irritability

Symptoms of skull base osteomyelitis

A rare but serious condition, skull base osteomyelitis has its own unique set of symptoms, including the following:

  • Headaches
  • Pain around the eye or ear
  • Hearing loss or ringing in the ear
  • Dizziness
  • Facial weakness or paralysis
  • Double vision
  • Hoarseness
  • Difficulty swallowing

Osteomyelitis risk factors

Risk factors for developing osteomyelitis include the following:

  • Diabetes
  • Kidney disease
  • A past splenectomy
  • Intravenous drug use
  • A recent fracture, surgery or bone injury
  • A recent ear infection or sinus infection
  • Age (osteomyelitis is most common in older adults, especially those with diabetes)

Osteomyelitis differences in children and adults

Osteomyelitis tends to affect different bones in children and adults:

  • In children: the long bones of the arms and legs
  • In adults: the feet, hips, spine, ears and skull base (skull base osteomyelities is most common in older adults with diabetes)

Care for osteomyelitis at Rush

Depending on where the infection occurs, you might be cared for by an orthopedic surgeon or skull base surgeon, as well as an infectious disease specialist. Successful treatment might also involve specialists from other departments, such as general surgery, vascular surgery and plastic surgery. These specialists are readily available and skilled at collaborating to manage your care seamlessly.

  • If you are diagnosed with acute, or short-term, osteomyelitis, your treatment might include the following:
    • Four to six weeks of intravenous antibiotics
    • Oral antibiotics if necessary
  • If you are diagnosed with chronic osteomyelitis, which persists over a long period of time, your treatment might include the following:
    • Intravenous and oral antibiotics
    • Surgery to remove infected or dead tissue, with bone grafts to replace the tissue that's removed
    • Hyperbaric oxygen therapy to promote healing by delivering more oxygen to the bone
    • Surgery to improve blood flow to the affected area
  • In extreme cases of chronic osteomyelitis, amputation may be necessary.

Why choose Rush for osteomyelitis care

  • Osteomyelitis can be very difficult to diagnose, so it's important to choose a medical center where a team of experts in the field will oversee your care.
  • The orthopedics program at Rush is consistently ranked among the best in the country by U.S. News & World Report. Orthopedic surgeons at Rush are known for their expertise in treating complex conditions and conducting innovative research on a full range of musculoskeletal conditions.
  • Several infectious disease specialists at Rush have been named among Chicago's best doctors by Castle Connolly Ltd., a respected source of information about U.S. health care providers and institutions.
  • Skull base surgeons at Rush offer the most advanced surgical approaches for skull base osteomyelitis, tailoring treatment to your specific needs.

Departments and programs that treat this condition