Osteomyelitis is a painful bone infection. It usually goes away if treated early with antibiotics. If not, it can cause permanent damage.



Osteomyelitis is an infection that most often causes pain in the long bones in the legs.

Other bones, such as those in the back or arms, can also be affected.

Anyone can develop osteomyelitis.

You're more at risk of getting an infection in a bone if you have:

  • recently broken (fractured) a bone
  • been injured or have a wound
  • an artificial hip, or a screw in a bone
  • recently had any surgery on a bone
  • a weakened immune system – for example, because of chemotherapy or you have another serious illness
  • had osteomyelitis before
  • diabetes, especially if you also have a foot ulcer
  • Sometimes an infection in the blood affects the bone.

You might need a blood test, or to go to hospital for:

  • a scan
  • a biopsy, where a small sample of fluid from the bone is sent for testing.

Osteomyelitis is treated with antibiotics. You may have to stay in hospital to get antibiotics directly into a vein (intravenously).

When you start to get better you might be able to take antibiotic tablets at home.

You'll usually take antibiotics for 4 to 6 weeks. If you have a severe infection, the course may last up to 12 weeks. It's important to finish a course of antibiotics even if you start to feel better.

If the infection is treated quickly (within 3 to 5 days of it starting), it often clears up completely.

You can take painkillers to ease the pain. If the infection is in a long bone (such as an arm or leg), you may be fitted with a splint so you don't move it as often.

Surgery for osteomyelitis

You'll usually need an operation if:

  • a build-up of pus (abscess) develops in the bone – the pus in an abscess needs to be drained
  • the infection presses against something else – for example, the spinal cord

If the infection has damaged the bone, you'll need surgery (known as debridement) to remove the damaged part.

Debridement can leave an empty space in the bone, which may be packed with antibiotic dressing.

Sometimes more than one operation is needed to treat the infection. Muscle and skin from another part of the body might be used to repair the area near the affected bone.