LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- A hidden impact of the opioid epidemic is showing up in Louisville.

Doctors are seeing a spike in a rare spine infection, and the increase is linked to the heroin crisis. The infection is called Osteomyelitis, and it can eat away at bone, causing serious pain and complications like paralysis.

"It typically starts in the disc, which is like the shock-absorber of the spine, and it spreads to the bones of the spine,” said Dr. Jeffrey Gum, a surgeon at Norton’s Leatherman Spine Center.

Osteomyelitis is considered a rare infection, and doctors used to see it primarily in patients with risk factors like a weakened immune system.

"Typically in the past, the patients that would get Osteomyelitis are older patients with a lot of medical problems,” Gum said.

But doctors at the spine center noticed a spike in cases over the past few years. Looking at what caused the increase led them to intravenous or "IV" drug use and the heroin epidemic.

"We're seeing it in heroin users or people that use IV drugs, because every time they shoot up, it showers bacteria into their bloodstream,” Gum said.

In 2012, Norton's spine specialists only saw five patients with these serious spine infections. By 2016, that number grew to more than 100 patients, and most of them were IV drug users.

"We just saw the numbers going through the roof,” Gum said.

In most of these patients, the infections were so far along that they needed surgery. In some serious cases, people came in paralyzed.

With IV drug users, their addiction can also complicate their treatment, so Norton doctors are trying to do some opioid-free surgeries.

"Last week, we did three patients where we used no narcotics at all, and patients did fantastic," Gums said. “They woke up really clean. Their pain levels were really low.”

If a special robot can be used to do the surgery, it also cuts down on healing time and helps reduce pain after the operation.

"Patients are recovering quicker, and they're not using as many pain medications afterward,” Gum said.

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