Bacterial Joint Inflammation

Written by Suzanne Allen and Marijane Leonard | Published on August 16, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is Bacterial Joint Inflammation?

Bacterial joint inflammation, also known as bacterial or septic arthritis, is a serious and painful infection in a joint. Bacteria can infiltrate your joint and cause rapid onset of cartilage deterioration and bone damage. This can lead to significant pain, swelling, redness, and loss of movement. You can usually make a full recovery with early medical intervention. If you delay, treatment, you might suffer permanent joint disability and, in rare cases, septic shock.


The harmful bacteria that cause bacterial joint inflammation can enter your body via the skin, eyes, ears, mouth, nose, and mucous membranes. Some of the types of bacteria responsible for causing this infection include:

  • Staphylococcus aureus, which causes staph infections
  • Streptococcus, which causes strep throat
  • Streptococcus pneumonia, which causes pneumonia
  • Neisseria gonorrhoeae, which causes gonorrhea
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which causes tuberculosis
  • Borrelia burgdorferi, which causes Lyme disease

Risk Factors

Bacterial joint inflammation can affect anyone at any age. However, the very young and the very old are most commonly affected. Some other risk factors include:

  • previous joint surgery or an artificial implant
  • rheumatoid arthritis and taking medications for this condition
  • lupus
  • gout
  • regularly injecting drugs
  • psoriasis or eczema
  • thin skin or wounds on the skin
  • weakened immune functioning
  • taking medications that suppress immune functioning
  • another bacterial infection in the body, such as a respiratory infection
  • unprotected sex
  • gum disease or periodontal surgery


Symptoms of bacterial joint inflammation vary depending on the type of bacteria. General symptoms of bacterial joint inflammation occur rapidly and may include:

  • elevated body temperature
  • pain in a joint
  • swelling and redness
  • warm skin over the joint
  • lack of appetite
  • fatigue
  • elevated heart rate

Children most commonly experience bacterial joint inflammation in their hips and shoulders. Adults tend to notice joint pain in their arms and legs, particularly the knees. The back, head, and neck can also be affected, but these are less common.

Tests and Diagnosis

If you suspect bacterial joint inflammation, get medical assistance immediately. Early diagnosis and treatment will improve your prognosis.

Your doctor will examine you, take a thorough medical history, and conduct medical tests to diagnose bacterial joint inflammation. Your healthcare provider might ask you about recent travel, daily activities, and your work environment. The following medical tests assist in establishing a diagnosis:

  • blood tests – to detect the presence of harmful bacteria
  • joint X-ray – to asses the extent of joint and cartilage damage
  • joint fluid sampling – to determine the type of bacterial infection

Sampling fluid from the affected joint will help pinpoint the type of bacterial infection causing the inflammation. Typically, joint fluid is transparent and thick. A bacterial infection will likely change its appearance.


As soon as the bacterium causing the infection is identified, your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic. Initially, antibiotics might be provided intravenously so that the medication is released directly into your bloodstream. Your physician may follow up by giving you an oral antibiotic. Antibiotic treatment might take two to six weeks depending on the type of bacterial infection and your overall medical condition.

Your physician might drain the fluid around the joint. This helps to reduce pressure and eliminate harmful bacteria. Arthroscopy is a common procedure for this, It involves using tubes for fluid draining and suctioning. Arthrocentesis, a procedure in which a needle penetrates the joint area, is another procedure to eliminate fluid.

Other treatments involve taking over-the-counter or prescribed anti-inflammatory medications to reduce any swelling and discomfort. Resting the affected area, elevating the joint, and applying warm or cold compresses might also help ease the pain and inflammation. Follow your healthcare provider’s instructions for exercising or moving the joint. If movement is recommended, rotating or moving the joint can prevent stiffness and weakness and help promote blood flow for healing. Physical therapy or other rehabilitation services may be required to aid in recovery.


Prompt treatment of bacterial joint inflammation is paramount for a good prognosis. If the infection is treated within one week of the symptoms appearing, a full recovery is generally expected. However, if an infection goes untreated, you may experience loss of joint functioning, joint degeneration, infection in other parts of your body, or death due to septic shock.


Always seek prompt medical assistance for any suspected infection as this may aid in reducing your risk of developing bacterial joint inflammation. Additionally, individuals with a high risk of developing septic arthritis can consult with their healthcare providers about taking preventive antibiotics.

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