4 Important Things to Know About Spinal Infections

It isn’t a common spine condition, but it is a serious one.

SPINAL INFECTIONS ARE A relatively rare diagnosis compared to other spine conditions, but they can cause significant damage – and they may become life threatening in some cases, if left untreated.

Infection of the spine can result in:

  • Bony abnormalities.
  • Instability of the spine.
  • Poor spinal alignment.
  • Nerve compression.

Spine infections can affect:

  • The bones or vertebrae.
  • The fluid or soft tissue in and around the spine.

Here are four crucial factors to keep in mind about infections of the spine.

Symptoms

Back pain or tenderness is often the first and primary symptom of a spinal infection. Unfortunately, back pain alone is also an extremely common occurrence in humans. Knowing when the pain you’re experiencing is simply a back-pain episode and when it’s something more serious can be tricky.

Symptoms of spinal infections include:

  • Fever.
  • Chills.
  • Sudden mobility limitations.
  • Accompanying headaches.
  • Shooting pains in legs, back or hips.
  • Muscle spasms.
  • Weight loss.
  • Pain or difficulty while urinating.
  • Abdominal pain.

Some spinal infections can also cause neurological problems. Symptoms of neurological issues related to a spinal infection may include loss of balance, weakness, vision changes, or an inability to speak, numbness and the inability to move, walk, stand or sit.

Causes

Spinal infections are caused by bacteria or fungi. These can come from an infection in another part of the body and then travel through the bloodstream to infect other areas, including the spine. For example, infections of the spine can be caused secondarily after surgery, cutting yourself on something or any other injury to an external part of your body that allows the infection to enter the bloodstream.

In some cases, the infection can travel to the spinal discs. Once the disc material is infected, it can then spread to other areas of the spine. The disc will begin to weaken, erode and collapse, pushing against the nerves in the spinal column. Back pain will begin in the affected area and if not treated, the infection may spread to the vertebrae.

Once an infection of the spine is on the move, the surrounding discs and vertebrae can weaken, then collapse and press against the spinal cord, impacting a multitude of bodily functions. If the infection is still untreated, these diseased vertebrae can fuse together and press against the nerve roots, leading to constant pain and discomfort.

Other spinal infection causes may include prolonged steroid use, advanced age, HIV, intravenous drug use, cancer, malnutrition and diabetes.

Diagnosis

Determining whether the symptoms you’re experiencing are indicative of infection may take some time. Blood tests are required to determine if an infection is present. Imaging tests may also be necessary to determine if the infection is in the spine, and where on the spine it’s located.

This is why it’s important to have symptoms checked out early. Because the diagnosis of a spinal infection is a process, but the infection itself can spread rather quickly, it’s crucial that you’re diligently monitoring your symptoms. Back pain accompanied by any of those symptoms as described above warrants an immediate trip to the doctor for evaluation.

Treatment

Spinal infections can be treated with both surgical and non-surgical methods. Sometimes the infection can be treated with antibiotics. And in more extensive cases, the infection can be treated with surgical decompression and stabilization.

If a spinal infection can be treated using non-surgical methods, a patient is usually started on an antibiotic or anti-fungal therapy. This is often conducted through a long-term intravenous treatment and possibly extended hospital stay.

If non-surgical treatments fail to control the infection, or it’s determined that the infection is too deeply involved in the spine, surgery will be needed. The surgery is meant to remove the infection and clean the affected area. Surgical intervention can also permit a closer look that will ensure all of the infection is removed, plus allow better blood flow to the affected areas and stop any further neurological damage. In some cases of spinal infection that has negatively impacted the structures of the spine, spine surgery is used to restore movement and mobility and repair the damage to the spine.

While it’s true that back pain is common, it isn’t all the same. If you’re suffering from any symptoms that accompany the pain, it’s essential to have an evaluation with a spine health expert. Even if a spinal infection isn’t the likely cause, it’s one of those conditions that can cause rapid damage if not properly and quickly treated. Remain vigilant about your symptom, and when in doubt, get to the doctor. Take care of your back, and your back will take care of you.

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