What Is a Spinal Infection?

Common Causes of Spinal Infections:

The most common causes of an infection in the spine are recent surgery, diabetes, sickle cell anemia, foreign travel to areas where tuberculosis is common, or an abnormal immune system (as in AIDS or HIV). Severe neck, thoracic, or low-back pain will usually bring you to the doctor. There may be drainage or a fever. Blood tests (such as a white blood cell count or an erythrocyte sedimentation rate) and abnormal x-rays or MRI scans are used to diagnose the problem.

What to Do If You Have an Infection from Surgery:

If you have had a recent surgery, and you have uncontrolled pain, a fever, redness of the wound, warmth about the wound, fullness under the skin, or drainage from the area of surgery, you will need to see a spine surgeon immediately. If your surgeon does not promptly offer assistance, get a second opinion. Spinal infections are usually due to bacteria such as staph. They vary in frequency. They are more common in some clinics, after major operations (such as fusions), or if you did not receive antibiotics before surgery. They are more common if the blood loss was great (over about one to two pints or 500 to 1000 milliliters of blood loss). They are more common if hardware (such as screws or rods) were used. You will need to have blood tests, x-rays, an MRI or CT, and a culture test. Rarely can post-operative infections be treated with antibiotics. If antibiotics do not cure the infection in a few days, a re-operation to clean out the infected tissue will be needed.

What Will Happen to My Surgery?

Unfortunately, if your surgery is complicated by an infection, it will usually need to be repeated. Surgical infections are almost always serious and many are difficult to treat. It may take three months or more to treat the infection. In most cases, the surgery will also need to be re-done.

What If You Have Not Had Surgery?

If you are diabetic, have sickle cell anemia, or have an abnormal immune system (such as from cancer treatment, HIV infection, or AIDS) you are more prone to infection. The disc space is most commonly involved but the bone can also become infected. Bacteria (including TB) and fungi can cause an infection. You will need to have blood tests, x-rays, an MRI or CT, and a culture test. The culture may need to be obtained using a needle type of biopsy. Antibiotics are commonly effective although surgery may be needed.

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Last modified: 07/27/08