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Common Spinal Infections and How to Avoid Them

Doctors Marc Menkowitz and Steve Paragioudakis are board-certified orthopedic surgeons who lead our team at the Center for the Functional Restoration of the Spine in Shrewsbury, Toms River, and Edison, New Jersey.

These award-winning specialists are known for providing the most advanced and effective care available for numerous spinal conditions that affect your health, mobility, and quality of life. They’re also dedicated to ensuring you understand your diagnosis, the goals of your treatment plan, and what to expect throughout the healing process.

Read what these experts say about the causes and symptoms of spinal infections and why early medical care is vital for these potentially serious illnesses.

Understanding spinal infections

Spinal infections occur when bacteria, fungi, or viruses invade structures within the vertebral column, intervertebral disc spaces, and/or soft tissue structures of the spinal canal.

Physicians typically categorize spinal infections according to the location of the infection, the most common of which are: 

Note that these infections typically affect adults but can occur at any age. 

What are the symptoms of a spinal infection?

The symptoms of a spinal infection can vary according to the type of infection and typically worsen as the infection progresses. Common symptoms include:

Intervertebral osteomyelitis

If you’ve recently undergone back surgery, you may also notice drainage, redness, and other signs of infection in and around the incision site.

Discitis

Discitis causes few symptoms initially, but you may develop severe back pain as the infection worsens. Very young children may not be able to express complaints of pain but often refuse to flex the spine as their discomfort increases.

Epidural abscess

An epidural abscess may cause only mild tenderness at the site of infection. Because this type of infection often involves spinal nerve roots, however, you may also note varying degrees of numbness, tingling, and muscle weakness in the arms or legs.

Without appropriate treatment, these infections can cause irreversible damage to the bones and soft tissue structures of the spine as well as a life-threatening systemic infection (sepsis).

How do you treat a spinal infection?

Depending on the nature and type of infection, early treatment typically includes a course of antifungals or antibiotics, which are typically delivered intravenously (IV) initially and then followed by several weeks of oral treatment. 

We may also recommend various measures, such as bracing and severe activity restrictions, to help stabilize and protect the spine as you heal.

Surgery may be required for extensive bone destruction or neurological deficits and/or failure of early treatment to achieve desired results.

Can you prevent a spinal infection?

You can’t always prevent a spinal infection, but understanding and controlling your risk factors may help you avoid the negative impact of these dangerous infections. 

Spinal infections are typically caused by bacteria or viruses that enter your bloodstream via a wound, surgical procedure, etc. Once these tiny invaders are introduced to your system, however, they can quickly travel to the spine.

Those who undergo routine urological procedures, such as catheterization or kidney dialysis, have untreated gum disease or tooth decay, or participate in IV drug use are at a higher risk of developing a spinal infection.

Other conditions that compromise your ability to fight off infection also increase your risk, including:

Following care instructions carefully after an injury or surgery, maintaining tight control of conditions like diabetes, and seeking prompt medical care when necessary, can help reduce your risk of spinal infections.

For outstanding care that’s focused on your specific needs, schedule a visit at the Center for Functional Restoration of the Spine today.

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