Infectious arthritis, which is sometimes called septic arthritis or pyogenic arthritis, is a serious infection of the joints characterized by pain, fever, occasional chills, inflammation and swelling in one or more joints, and loss of function in the affected joints. It is considered a medical emergency.
Infectious arthritis can occur in any age group, including newborns and children. In adults, it usually affects the wrists or one of the patient's weight-bearing joints—most often the knee—although about 20% of adult patients have symptoms in more than one joint. Multiple joint infection is common in children and typically involves the shoulders, knees, and hips.
Some groups of patients are at greater risk for developing infectious arthritis. These high-risk groups include:
- patients with chronic rheumatoid arthritis
- patients with certain systemic infections, including gonorrhea and HIV infection. Women and male homosexuals are at greater risk for gonorrheal arthritis than are male heterosexuals
- patients with certain types of cancer
- IV drug abusers and alcoholics
- patients with artificial (prosthetic) joints
- patients with diabetes, sickle cell anemia, or systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)
- patients with recent joint injuries or surgery, or patients receiving medications injected directly into a joint
Causes and symptoms
In general, infectious arthritis is caused by the spread of a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection through the bloodstream to the joint. The disease agents may enter the joint directly from the outside as a result of an injury or a surgical procedure, or they may be carried to the joint by the blood from infections elsewhere in the body. The specific organisms vary somewhat according to age group. Newborns are most likely to acquire gonococcal infections of the joints from a mother with gonorrhea. Children may also acquire infectious arthritis from a hospital environment, often as a result of catheter placement. The organisms involved are usually either Haemophilus influenzae (in children under two years of age) or Staphylococcus aureus. In older children or adults, the infectious organisms include Streptococcus pyogenes and Streptococcus viridans as well as Staphylococcus aureus. Staphylococcus epidermidis is usually involved in joint infections related to surgery. Sexually active teenagers and adults frequently develop infectious arthritis from Neisseria gonorrhoeae infections. Older adults are often vulnerable to joint infections caused by gram-negative bacilli, including Salmonella and Pseudomonas.
Infectious arthritis often has a sudden onset, but symptoms sometimes develop over a period of three to 14 days. The symptoms include swelling in the infected joint and pain when the joint is moved. Infectious arthritis in the hip may be experienced as pain in the groin area that becomes much worse if the patient tries to walk. In 90% of cases, there is some leakage of tissue fluid into the affected joint. The joint is sore to the touch; it may or may not be warm to the touch, depending on how deep the infection lies within the joint. In most cases the patient will have fever and chills, although the fever may be only low-grade. Children sometimes develop nausea and vomiting.
Septic arthritis is considered a medical emergency because of the damage it causes to bone as well as cartilage, and its potential for creating septic shock, which is a potentially fatal condition. Staphylococcus aureus is
The diagnosis of infectious arthritis depends on a combination of laboratory testing with careful history-taking and physical examination of the affected joint. It is important to keep in mind that infectious arthritis can coexist with other forms of arthritis, gout, rheumatic fever, Lyme disease, or other disorders that can cause a combination of joint pain and fever. In some cases, the doctor may consult a specialist in orthopedics or rheumatology to avoid misdiagnosis.
The patient's history will tell the doctor whether he or she belongs to a high-risk group for infectious arthritis. Sudden onset of joint pain is also important information.
The doctor will examine the affected joint for swelling, soreness, warmth, and other signs of infection. Location is sometimes a clue to diagnosis; infection of an unusual joint, such as the joints between the breastbone and collarbone, or the pelvic joints, often occurs in drug abusers.
Laboratory testing is necessary to confirm the diagnosis of infectious arthritis. The doctor will perform an arthrocentesis, which is a procedure that involves withdrawing a sample of synovial fluid (SF) from the joint with a needle and syringe. SF is a lubricating fluid secreted by tissues surrounding the joints. Patients should be warned that arthrocentesis is a painful procedure. The fluid sample is sent for culture in the sealed syringe. SF from infected joints is usually streaked with pus or looks cloudy and watery. Cell counts usually indicate a high level of white cells; a level higher than 100,000 cells/mm3 or a neutrophil proportion greater than 90% suggests septic arthritis. A Gram's stain of the culture obtained from the SF is usually positive for the specific disease organism.
Doctors sometimes order a biopsy of the synovial tissue near the joint if the fluid sample is negative. Cultures of other body fluids, such as urine, blood, or cervical mucus, may be taken in addition to the SF culture.
Diagnostic imaging is not helpful in the early stages of infectious arthritis. Destruction of bone or cartilage does not appear on x rays until 10–14 days after the onset of symptoms. Imaging studies are sometimes useful if the infection is in a deep-seated joint.
Infectious arthritis requires usually requires several days of treatment in a hospital, with follow-up medication and physical therapy lasting several weeks or months.
Because of the possibility of serious damage to the joint or other complications if treatment is delayed, the patient will be started on intravenous antibiotics before the specific organism is identified. After the disease organism has been identified, the doctor may give the patient a drug that targets the specific bacterium or virus. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are usually given for viral infections.
Intravenous antibiotics are given for about two weeks, or until the inflammation has disappeared. The patient may then be given a two-to four-week course of oral antibiotics.
In some cases, surgery is necessary to drain fluid from the infected joint. Patients who need surgical
Patients with severe damage to bone or cartilage may need reconstructive surgery, but it cannot be performed until the infection is completely gone.
Monitoring and supportive treatment
Infectious arthritis requires careful monitoring while the patient is in the hospital. The doctor will drain the joint on a daily basis and remove a small sample of fluid for culture to check the patient's response to the antibiotic.
Infectious arthritis often causes intense pain. Patients are given medications to relieve pain, together with hot compresses or ice packs on the affected joint. In some cases the patient's arm or leg is put in a splint to protect the sore joint from accidental movement. Recovery can be speeded up, however, if the patient practices range-of-motion exercises to the extent that the pain allows.
The prognosis depends on prompt treatment with antibiotics and drainage of the infected joint. About 70% of patients will recover without permanent joint damage. However, many patients will develop osteoarthritis or deformed joints. Children with infected hip joints sometimes suffer damage to the growth plate. If treatment is delayed, infectious arthritis has a mortality rate between 5% and 30% due to septic shock and respiratory failure.
Some cases of infectious arthritis are preventable by lifestyle choices. These include avoidance of self-injected drugs; sexual abstinence or monogamous relationships; and prompt testing and treatment for suspected cases of gonorrhea. Patients receiving corticosteroid injections into the joints for osteoarthritis may want to weigh this treatment method against the increased risk of infectious arthritis.
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Rebecca J. Frey, PhD
Arthrocentesis—A procedure in which the doctor inserts a needle into the patient's joint to withdraw fluid for diagnostic testing or to drain infected fluid from the joint.
Pyogenic arthritis—Another name for infectious arthritis. Pyogenic means that pus is formed during the disease process.
Septic arthritis—Another name for infectious arthritis.
Synovial fluid (SF)—A fluid secreted by tissues surrounding the joints that lubricates the joints.