Diagnosing and Treating Vertebral Osteomyelitis

Category: Spine | Author: Stefano Sinicropi

Vertebral Osteomyelitis

Vertebral osteomyelitis is the medical term for an infection of the spine. It’s not all that common, but when one sets in, treatment needs to be proactive because major problems can develop if left untreated.

In most cases, an infection spreads to the vertebral body through a vascular route. The veins in your lumbar spine provide a direct path of entry for bacteria to get into the spine. Sometimes your body can fight off this bacteria, but certain individuals are at greater risk for it turning into a full blown infection. Those individuals include:

  • Elderly patients
  • Intravenous drug users
  • Individuals with a weakened immune system, like patients with diabetes, organ transplant recipients or those with cancer

The most common spinal infections are caused by Staphylococcus Aureus, but other types of bacterial infections are common among intravenous drug users, so it’s important to pinpoint the type of infection before moving forward with treatment.

Diagnosing and Treating Spinal Osteomyelitis

If you are experiencing spine pain along with a fever, weight loss, or swelling and redness around a vertebral body, head into a spine specialist’s office for a consultation. Spinal infections aren’t always easy to diagnose if the only symptom is pain, but the process of ruling out or confirming a suspected infection begins with an X-ray or other imaging exam. Doctors will be looking for bone damage on an X-ray or increased blood flow with an MRI.

From there, a doctor will collect a blood culture to look for certain biomarkers to determine if an infection is present, and what type of bacteria is causing the infection. Your doctor may also conduct a white blood cell count to look for an elevated cell count, which suggests the body is trying to fight off an infection. In rare cases, a needle biopsy may be needed to collect a sample for culture testing.

Treating vertebral osteomyelitis usually involves non-surgical management, and primarily involves intravenous antibiotic treatment. Antibiotics are typically used for 4-6 weeks, although that duration can be extended if you’re dealing with something other than a staph infection. During this time, you will also likely be advised to rest and wear a brace to help stabilize the spine while it recovers.

MN Spine Surgery

If an infection has caused enough damage, surgery may be necessary. Surgery is typically performed to remove infected tissue, decompress nerves and stabilize the spine if the damage has jeopardized the integrity of the spine. If the spine needs to be stabilized, the surgeon will usually use hardware or a bone graft from the patient to strengthen the spine.

For more information about vertebral osteomyelitis, reach out to Dr. Sinicropi’s office today.

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