Physicians find link between heroin use, spinal infections

Physicians at Louisville-based Norton Leatherman Spine have linked a rare spine infection, called osteomyelitis, to intravenous heroin use, according to Wave 3 News.

"The skin is coated in bacteria most of the time; staph is on our skin, and if a needle has been used it has bacteria in it," Jeffrey Gum, MD, of Norton Leatherman spine, told Wave 3 News. "When someone injects, they shower their bloodstream with that bacteria, and a lot of times that lands in the spine."

Over the last five years, physicians in Kentucky have noticed a spike in this infection that causes back pain, limb weakness and leads to paralysis or death. Dr. Gum indicated he saw five patients with serious spine infections in 2012. In 2016, he saw other 100 patients with osteomyelitis due to intravenous drug use.

"Most of the time when we see those infections, they are a lot further along," Dr. Gum told Wave 3 News. "It means they are more likely in need of surgery, potentially death and other complications."

If not severe, osteomyelitis is treatable with antibiotics. If a case is severe enough, the patient will require complicated spinal surgery.

Dr. Gum said physicians should take steps to address a patient's addiction after surgery.

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