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Spine Infection / Tuberculosis (T.B.)

Updated: Nov 26, 2020

Vertebral osteomyelitis refers to an infection of the vertebral body in the spine. It is a fairly common cause of back pain, especially in young healthy adults.

When this infection is caused by a bacteria, it is known as Osteomyelitis and when the infection is caused by Tuberculosis, it is known as Pott's Spine.

Generally, the infection is spread to the vertebral body by blood. The veins in the lower spine drain the pelvis and provide for a direct route of entry for the bacteria to get into the spine.

Common Causes of Osteomyelitis (or Pott’s Spine)

Patients susceptible to osteomyelitis (or Pott’s Spine) include:

  • Elderly patients

  • Intravenous drug users

  • Individuals whose immune systems are compromised

Conditions that compromise the immune system include:

  • Long-term systemic administration of steroids to treat conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis

  • Insulin Dependent Diabetes Mellitus

  • Organ transplant patients

  • Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS)

  • Malnutrition

  • Cancer

Tuberculosis infections (T.B.) is caused by Mycobacterium Tuberculosis and it is very common to develop Tuberculosis of the spine, especially in developing countries. Tuberculosis of the spine is known as Pott’s Spine.

Intravenous drug abuse is a growing cause of spinal infections. Typically, the organism most likely to infect the spine is Staphylococcus Aureus, but in the intravenous drug population, Pseudomonas infection is also a common cause of spinal infection. The treatment for these two bacteria requires different antibiotic therapy.

Most vertebral body infections occur in the lumbar spine because of the blood flow to this region of the spine. Tuberculosis infections have a predilection for the thoracic spine, and intravenous drug abusers are more likely to contract an infection of the cervical spine.

Osteomyelitis (or Pott’s Spine) Symptoms

Symptoms of back pain due to a spinal infection often develop insidiously and over a long period of time. In addition to back pain, which is present in over 90% of patients with vertebral osteomyelitis (or Pott’s Spine), general symptoms may include one or a combination of the following constitutional symptoms:

  • Fever, chills, or shakes

  • Unplanned weight loss

  • Nighttime pain that is worse than daytime pain

  • Swelling and possible warmth and redness around the infection site

A spinal infection rarely affects the nerves in the spine. However, the infection may move into the spinal canal and cause an epidural abscess, which can place pressure on the neural elements. If this happens in the cervical or thoracic spine, it can result in paraplegia or quadriplegia. If it happens in the lumbar spine it can result in cauda equina syndrome (a syndrome that leads to bowel and bladder incontinence, saddle anesthesia, and possible lower extremity weakness).

The most common site of vertebral bone infection is in the lower back, or lumbar spine, followed by the thoracic (upper) spine, the cervical spine (neck). It may also develop in the sacrum, the bone at the very bottom of the spine that connects to the pelvis.

Symptoms of vertebral osteomyelitis (or Pott’s Spine) are highly variable depending on the patient, the location of the infection, and how far advanced it is. For example, while a fever is a typical symptom, some people may have no fever and others may run a high fever.

Lumbar infections may also present with pain when standing, irritation of muscles such as the psoas muscle (hip flexor) and hamstring (knee flexor), and a loss of lumbar lordosis. Cervical Spine Anatomy may present with torticollis (the inability to straighten out one’s neck).

Due to the variable, often vague, and general symptoms of the disease, vertebral osteomyelitis (or Pott’s Spine) often goes undetected until the infection is quite advanced.

Osteomyelitis (or Pott’s Spine) Diagnosis

A diagnosis of spinal infection is difficult to make early on in the course of the disease. If osteomyelitis (or Pott’s Spine) is suspected, both diagnostic studies and laboratory studies will be conducted to make an accurate diagnosis. Sometimes, either an interventional radiological or surgical procedure may also be necessary to obtain a culture of the bacteria.

Diagnostic Studies

The process of diagnosing a spinal infection usually starts with an X-ray. X-rays will usually be normal in the first 2 to 4 weeks after the infection starts. For changes to show up on an X-ray, 50% to 60% of the bone in the vertebral body needs to be destroyed. If the disc space is involved (discitis), the disc space may narrow and destruction of the endplates around the disc may be seen on the X-ray.

The most sensitive and specific imaging study for spinal infection is an MRI scan with enhancement with an intravenous dye (Gadolinium). The infection will cause an increase in blood flow to the vertebral body, and this will be picked up by the Gadolinium, which will enhance the MRI signal in areas of increased blood flow.

Older tests that are not as specific, such as bone scans, are still sometimes useful, especially if the patient cannot have a MRI scan. Bone scans are fairly reliable in determining if there is increased bone turnover in the spine, but cannot differentiate infection from tumor, trauma, or sometimes even normal degenerative changes.

Laboratory Studies

Laboratory studies should also be obtained. Blood cultures may pick up the causative organism and help guide antibiotic therapy. Blood cultures are positive probably less than half the time, but when they are positive, they can be a very useful adjunct to guide the treatment (some bacteria are more sensitive to certain antibiotics than others).

Inflammatory markers can help indicate whether or not there is an infection. The erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) and the C-reactive protein (CRP) are the two best known markers for inflammation, and they will be elevated in 80% to 90% of patients with osteomyelitis (or Pott’s Spine).

Another common test for an infection is level of white blood cells, however the white blood cell count may be normal in up to 70% of patients with vertebral osteomyelitis (or Pott’s Spine).

If all of the above markers are normal, it is unlikely that the patient has an infection.

If any of these markers are elevated, it can also serve as a baseline, and subsequent tests of these markers will indicate whether or not the patient is responding to a particular therapy. If the markers fall during treatment, then the treatment is likely to be successful in eradicating the infection.


Surgery is sometimes necessary to fix an unstable spine or to obtain cultures for diagnosis of which type of bacteria are the cause of the infection. A biopsy may be obtained by needle biopsy, using a CT scan to visualize the needle and guide it into the infection. On occasion, open biopsy may also be necessary for diagnosis.

Osteomyelitis (or Pott’s Spine) Treatments

Treatment for vertebral osteomyelitis (or Pott’s Spine) is usually conservative (meaning nonsurgical) and based primarily on use of antibiotic treatment. Occasionally, surgery may be necessary to alleviate pressure on the spinal nerves, clean out infected material, and/or stabilize the spine.

Nonsurgical Treatments for Vertebral Osteomyelitis (or Pott’s Spine)

Treatment for a spinal infection usually includes a combination of intravenous antibiotic therapy, bracing, and rest.

Most cases of vertebral osteomyelitis are caused by Staphylococcus Aureus, which is generally very sensitive to antibiotics. The intravenous antibiotic treatment usually takes about four weeks, and then is usually followed by about two weeks of oral antibiotics.

For infection caused by tuberculosis (Pott’s Spine), patients are often required to take multiple drugs for up to 18 months.

Bracing is recommended to provide stability for the spine while the infection is healing. It is usually continued for 6 to 12 weeks, until either a bony fusion is seen on X-ray, or until the patient’s pain subsides. A rigid brace works best and need only be worn when the patient is active.

Surgical Treatments and Considerations

Surgical decompression is necessary if an epidural abscess places pressure on the neural elements. Along with surgical decompression, instrumentation and fusion are also frequently included to prevent worsening deformity and pain.

If the infection does not respond to antibiotic therapy, surgical debridement and removal of infected material may be necessary. Stabilization and fusion are also done after removing the infected bone.

Surgery may also be necessary if there is a great deal of bony destruction with resultant deformity and pain. Reconstructing the bony elements and stabilizing the spine can help reduce pain and prevent further collapse of the spine.

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