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Septic Arthritis

What is septic arthritis?

Septic arthritis is a serious infection of the joints. It causes pain, fever, chills, inflammation, and swelling in one or more joints. It may be called bacterial, infectious, pyogenic, or nongonococcal septic arthritis. Septic arthritis is not as common as some of the other types of arthritis. It needs to be diagnosed and treated quickly because it can destroy joints in a short time.

How does it occur?

Bacteria from another infection in the body usually cause septic arthritis. The bacteria spread to the joint through the blood. Septic arthritis may also be caused by an injury or after surgery for a joint. Gonorrhea, a sexually transmitted disease, can also cause septic arthritis.

Anyone can get septic arthritis, but it is more common in people over 80 and children under 3 years of age. You are more likely to get septic arthritis if you have:

  • diabetes
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • joint replacement surgery
  • a skin infection
  • cirrhosis of the liver
  • kidney disease, or are on dialysis
  • cancer.

Intravenous drug users are also at higher risk for this disease.

If you are at risk for septic arthritis, you may need to take antibiotics before having dental work. Ask your healthcare provider about this.

What are the symptoms?

The first symptoms of septic arthritis are a swollen, red, and painful joint. You may also have fever. You may not want to move the joint because of the pain and swelling. It most often affects the knees.

Septic arthritis is considered an urgent medical condition. If you have symptoms of septic arthritis, see a healthcare provider right away. If treatment is delayed, permanent joint damage may occur.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. You may also have blood tests and X-rays. A sample of fluid in the joint is usually taken with a needle. The fluid will be tested to confirm the diagnosis and see what type of bacteria is causing the problem.

How is it treated?

Most often, people with joint infections are admitted to a hospital. However, a well-organized, properly supplied outpatient clinic can do the necessary testing and manage treatment. If you are not treated at a hospital, you will need to make sure that you understand the treatment instructions, and you will need to do some extra work at home.

Antibiotics are given to treat the joint infection. Usually, the medicine will be given intravenously (IV) at first, then changed to antibiotic pills. You may need antibiotics for 3 to 6 weeks.

Fluid will need to be drained from the infected joint. This usually is done when the joint fluid is sampled for diagnosis. The drainage can be done with a needle. Sometimes, joint arthroscopy is needed to make sure the joint is drained properly. For severe septic arthritis, you may need to have surgery to drain the joint and clean it out with sterile liquids.

For the first day or two, your joint will be immobilized. You can start using the joint again as soon as the first tests are done. You won’t have to keep the joint immobile for a long time. Warm, moist cloths (compresses) may be used to help with the pain. Physical therapy may be helpful if your movement is limited, but often you can just start reusing the joint, without specific physical therapy treatments.

How long will the effects last?

When septic arthritis is treated early, the joint usually heals completely. Delaying treatment can lead to permanent joint damage.

How can I help take care of myself?

If you have risk factors for septic arthritis, be sure to report any new joint pain or swelling to your doctor.

How can I help prevent septic arthritis?

Be sure to clean cuts on the skin with soap and water immediately, and watch for signs of infection, especially if the injury is near a joint.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2010-02-16
Last reviewed: 2009-12-19
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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