Septic Arthritis - The Basic Facts

Caused by Infection in a Joint

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Septic Arthritis Basics

Septic arthritis is an infection in a joint. The infection can be caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, or parasites. Joint infection caused by fungi or parasites is much less common than that caused by bacteria or viruses. Typically, septic arthritis affects a single large joint, such as the knee or hip, but it is possible for several joints to be infected.

Septic arthritis is also referred to as infectious arthritis.

Septic arthritis is considered a medical emergency because of the serious damage that can occur to bone and cartilage. Septic arthritis can cause septic shock, which can be fatal.

Causes of Septic Arthritis

The infection can originate anywhere in the body. The infection may also begin as the result of an open wound, surgery, or unsterile injection. Whatever the initial source of infection, septic arthritis occurs when the infective organism travels through the bloodstream to the joint.

Symptoms Associated With Septic Arthritis

Signs and symptoms associated with septic arthritis include:

  • fever
  • chills
  • severe pain in the affected joint
  • swelling of the affected joint (joint effusion)
  • warmth near the affected joint
  • fatigue and weakness
  • nausea

Diagnosis of Septic Arthritis:

After considering your medical history and physical examination, certain tests will be ordered by your doctor. The tests used to diagnose septic arthritis include:

  • blood tests to identify elevated white cell count and bacteria
  • x-rays or other imaging studies to assess joint damage
  • arthrocentesis to analyze synovial (joint) fluid for several parameters that could indicate infection

Treatment of Septic Arthritis:

It is necessary to identify the bacteria that is causing the infection.

Once the bacteria is identified, the appropriate antibiotic can begin. Antibiotics, used to kill the bacteria, are usually taken for 4 to 6 weeks, orally or intravenously.

It may also be necessary to drain the infected joint space, either by arthrocentesis, surgical irrigation (washing out the joint with sterile solutions), or debridement (removal of decaying tissue). There may be significant joint damage resulting from septic arthritis that eventually leads to joint replacement surgery.

Risk Factors for Septic Arthritis:

Certain factors increase the risk of developing septic arthritis. Those include:

  • previous joint problems from other types of arthritis, joint surgery, joint injury
  • weakened immune system from diseases or from taking immunosuppressant medications
  • skin wounds or open wounds allow bacteria access to the body
  • injectable drug abuse and alcoholism are associated with high infection risk

Prevalence of Septic Arthritis:

Septic arthritis can affect anyone at any age -- including infants and children.

In adults, weightbearing joints (hips, knees, ankles) are most affected. In children, shoulders, hips, and knees are commonly affected. As the population ages, doctors are seeing more patients with septic arthritis.

Points of Interest About Septic Arthritis:

  • The most common type of bacteria involved in septic arthritis is Staphylococcus aureus, usually referred to as Staph.
  • The bacteria that causes gonorrhea used to be a common cause of septic arthritis, but safe sex has made it less common.
  • When viruses attack joints, it is called viral arthritis, and the condition usually resolves on its own.
  • Joint infection caused by a fungus, known as fungal arthritis, is considered very rare.

Remember, seek immediate medical attention if you have signs or symptoms that point to septic arthritis.

Sources:

Septic Arthritis. Zeller et al. 297 (13):1510. JAMA. April 4, 2007.
http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/297/13/1510

Septic Arthritis. Health & Disease Information. Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center College of Medicine. Accessed 3/9/2008.
http://www.hmc.psu.edu/healthinfo/s/septicarthritis.htm

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