Osteomyelitis and septic arthritis are two types of infections usually caused by bacteria that affect your musculoskeletal system.

Septic arthritis is an infection of the lining and fluid of one or more of your joints. Osteomyelitis is an infection of your bone tissue. Both conditions can be life threatening if you don’t receive treatment quickly.

Read on to learn more about the similarities and differences between osteomyelitis and septic arthritis.

septic arthritisosteomyelitis
symptomspain and swelling in one or more jointspain in one of your long bones, usually a few inches from the end
most common locationslarge joints like your hip or kneeupper and lower leg bones
causesusually bacterialusually bacterial

Here’s a look at the symptoms of osteomyelitis and septic arthritis.

Osteomyelitis symptoms

Osteomyelitis can cause severe pain, usually in your legs.

The most common location for osteomyelitis to develop is the metaphysis, the part of the bone where the long, narrow shaft meets the wider base.

Your femur and tibia are the bones most commonly affected, which are your upper leg bone and shin bone, respectively.

Symptoms may include:

Septic arthritis symptoms

Septic arthritis symptoms usually develop quickly over a few days. It most commonly affects large joints like your hip or knee.

Symptoms can include:

Osteomyelitis and septic arthritis are both most often caused by bacterial infections.

Osteomyelitis causes

The most common cause of osteomyelitis is the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus. Less commonly a fungal infection, and extremely rarely, a viral infection may cause it.

This infection may develop due to:

  • spread of bacteria through your bloodstream
  • bacteria that access the bone directly, often through surgical or traumatic injury
  • a complication of diabetic foot infection

Risk factors include:

Septic arthritis causes

An infection of your joint fluid and lining causes septic arthritis. The most common cause in children and adults is the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus. Fungal and viral infections are less common.

Similar to osteomyelitis, the infection can spread from your bloodstream or from bacteria that enter your joint through an injury.

Risk factors for septic arthritis include:

Osteomyelitis and septic arthritis both require quick treatment to avoid complications. It’s critical to get medical attention if you develop sharp pain in your joint or along your bone that onsets quickly without an obvious injury.

This is especially the case if you also have other signs of an infection, such as:

  • fever
  • chills
  • malaise

The main test for osteomyelitis is a biopsy of the bone to identify the microorganism causing the infection.

For septic arthritis, the most useful test is arthrocentesis, when your doctor takes a biopsy of the joint fluid with a long needle.

Blood tests and imaging can provide supportive evidence of your infection and also allow doctors to see the extent of bone or joint damage.

Imaging tests you might receive include:

Here’s a look at the treatment options for osteomyelitis and septic arthritis.

Osteomyelitis treatment

Healthcare professionals primarily treat osteomyelitis with surgical debridement and antibiotics if the infection is bacterial.

Debridement is the surgical removal of dead or infected tissue. You may require reconstruction of your bone if a large portion of the bone needs removal.

You may need to take oral antibiotics at home or take antibiotics through an IV in the hospital. Severe infections might require antibiotics for as long as 12 weeks.

The mortality rate for osteomyelitis can be as high as 20%.

Septic arthritis treatment

Septic arthritis needs prompt treatment to minimize joint damage.

Healthcare professionals often administer antibiotics through an IV if bacteria cause the infection. You’ll likely receive antifungals if a fungus causes the infection. The average hospital stay is about 2 weeks.

You may also need a procedure to remove fluid buildup from your joint or surgical debridement to remove dead tissue. You’ll likely receive antibiotics to take orally after you leave the hospital for at least several weeks.

Ways you might be able to prevent osteomyelitis and septic arthritis include:

  • avoiding situations that put you at risk of puncture wounds
  • avoiding sharing injection equipment
  • using barrier methods when having sex to avoid gonorrhea infection
  • treating risk factors such as rheumatoid arthritis or diabetes
  • supporting your immune system by eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and practicing appropriate hygiene habits

Here are some frequently asked questions people have about osteomyelitis and septic arthritis.

What is the most common cause of septic arthritis?

The most common cause of septic arthritis is infection with the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus. Other bacteria like Neisseria gonorrhea, viruses, and fungal infections are other potential causes.

Is osteomyelitis the same as sepsis?

Osteomyelitis is an infection of bone tissue. Sepsis is an extreme immune reaction to an infection that can cause life threatening complications.

Can you have osteomyelitis and septic arthritis at the same time?

Osteomyelitis and septic arthritis can occur at the same time if the infection spreads to both the joint tissue and bone.

Bacterial infections usually cause osteomyelitis and septic arthritis. Osteomyelitis is an infection of your bone whereas septic arthritis is an infection of one of your joints.

Both infections require prompt medical attention to avoid potentially life threatening complications. It’s important to get medical attention if you develop symptoms such as sharp joint or bone pain, fever, chills, or fatigue.