How to deal with bone exposure and osteomyelitis: an overview.

Published online: Dec 27 2003

Verhelle N, Van Zele D, Liboutton L, Heymans O.

University Hospital, C.H.U. du Sart-Tilman, Institute of Anatomy, University of Liege, Belgium


The authors present an overview of the various techniques which can be used to achieve coverage of exposed bone, particularly in cases of bone exposure associated with an underlying fracture or osteomyelitis. Adequate debridement, possibly in several stages, is necessary in all cases to prepare the receptor site for the next step which is soft tissue coverage, achieved using various types of surgical procedures. Adequate reconstruction can be achieved with pedicled flaps in some cases but in cases with exposure of bone, free flaps usually represent a better option in cases where the condition of the patient is not a limiting factor. Thin fascio-cutaneous free flaps may be used in some cases with small and simple soft tissue loss, so as to minimise donor site mobidity. Free muscle flaps, such as from the latissimus dorsi, are preferable in cases with bone loss in order to fill any dead space; in cases with major bone loss, a free vascularised bone graft can be used, or composite grafts including bone, muscle and/or skin (fibula or crista iliaca flaps). Some reconstructions require a functional approach, such as over an exposed joint, or for the weight-bearing area of the foot or the soft tissues over the Achilles tendon. Survival of a free flap requires perfect, permeable microsutures; thrombosis of the anastomosis is a major complication which jeopardizes flap survival; close surveillance of the flap is required during the first few days, with hourly Doppler monitoring of the pedicle on the first day. The success rate can be as high as 90 to 100% in simple cases; failures may be related to surgical technique, inadequate choice of the flap, or specific features of the patient. In cases with an underlying bone infection, recurrence of infection occurs in 5 to 20% of cases; this requires additional treatment, possibly with repeat debridement, prolonged antibiotic therapy and sometimes a second free flap.