Gonococcal arthritis is a rare complication of the sexually transmitted infection (STI) gonorrhea. It generally causes painful inflammation of the joints and tissues. The arthritis tends to affect women more than it affects men.

Gonorrhea is a bacterial infection. It’s a very common STI, especially among teens and young adults. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates there are 1.14 million new gonorrhea diagnoses in the United States each year.

Gonorrhea is usually transmitted through sexual contact. Babies can also contract it from their mothers during childbirth.

Common symptoms include:

  • painful urination
  • pain during intercourse
  • pelvic pain
  • discharge from the vagina or penis

Gonorrhea can also produce no symptoms whatsoever.

While this type of infection clears up quickly with antibiotics, many people don’t seek treatment for STIs.

This may be due to the stigma of having an STI (although STIs are incredibly common) or because the STI isn’t causing symptoms and people don’t know they have an infection.

Gonococcal arthritis is one of many complications that occur as a result of untreated gonorrhea. Symptoms include swollen, painful joints and skin lesions.

If left untreated, this condition can lead to chronic joint pain.

In many cases, gonorrhea causes no symptoms, so you may not be aware that you have it.

Gonococcal arthritis can occur in the:

  • ankles
  • knees
  • elbows
  • wrists
  • bones of the head and trunk (but this is rare)

It can affect many joints or a single joint.

Symptoms may include:

  • red and swollen joints
  • joints that are tender or painful, especially when you move
  • restricted joint range of motion
  • fever
  • chills
  • skin lesions
  • pain or burning during urination

In infants, symptoms may include:

  • difficulty feeding
  • irritability
  • crying
  • fever
  • spontaneous movement of a limb

A bacterium called Neisseria gonorrhoeae causes gonorrhea. People contract gonorrhea through oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse not protected with a condom or other barrier method.

Babies can also get gonorrhea during childbirth if their mothers have an infection.

Anyone can get gonorrhea. According to the CDC, rates of infection are highest in sexually active teenagers, young adults, and Black Americans. This could be due to policies that limit access to sexual health information and healthcare inequities.

Sex without a condom or other barrier method with new sexual partners can raise your risk for contracting gonorrhea.

In addition to joint swelling and pain, untreated gonorrhea can lead to other, more serious health complications, including:

  • pelvic inflammatory disease (a serious infection of the uterus lining, ovaries, and fallopian tubes that can lead to scarring)
  • infertility
  • complications during pregnancy
  • increased risk of HIV

Babies who contract gonorrhea from a mother with an infection are also at higher risk for infections, skin sores, and blindness.

If you or your partner have symptoms of an STI, seek medical attention as soon as possible. The sooner you get treatment, the sooner the infection can clear.

To diagnose gonococcal arthritis, your doctor will review your symptoms and conduct one or more tests to look for a gonorrhea infection, including:

  • throat culture (a sample of tissue is swabbed from the throat and tested for bacteria)
  • cervical gram stain (as part of a pelvic exam, your doctor will take a sample of tissue from the cervix, which will be tested for the presence of bacteria)
  • urine or blood test

If your test results are positive for gonorrhea and you’re experiencing symptoms associated with gonococcal arthritis, your doctor may want to test your joint fluid to confirm their diagnosis.

To do this, your doctor will use a needle to extract a sample of fluid from an inflamed joint. They will send the fluid to a laboratory to test for the presence of gonorrhea bacteria.

To relieve your gonococcal arthritis symptoms, the underlying gonorrhea infection needs to be treated.

Antibiotic drugs are the primary form of treatment. Because some strains of gonorrhea have become antibiotic-resistant, your doctor may prescribe several types of antibiotics.

According to CDC treatment guidelines, gonorrhea infections can be treated with a 250-milligram (mg) dose of the antibiotic ceftriaxone (given as an injection) in addition to an oral antibiotic.

The oral antibiotic may include 1 mg of azithromycin given in a single dose or 100 mg of doxycycline that’s taken twice daily for 7 to 10 days.

These guidelines from the CDC change over time. Your doctor will be referencing the most up-to-date versions, so your specific treatment may vary.

You must be retested after 1 week of treatment to see whether your infection has cleared.

Inform all your sexual partners about your diagnosis so they can be tested and treated, too. Here’s how.

Wait to have sex until you and all your sexual partners are done with treatment to prevent transmitting the infection back and forth.

Most people get relief from their symptoms after a day or two of treatment and make a full recovery.

Without treatment, this condition can lead to chronic joint pain.

Abstaining from sex is the only sure way to prevent STIs.

People who are sexually active can lower their risk for gonorrhea by using condoms or other barrier methods and getting screened for STIs on a regular basis.

It’s an especially good idea to get screened regularly if you have new or multiple partners. Encourage your partners to get screened, too.

Staying informed about your sexual health can help you get a quick diagnosis or prevent exposure in the first place.

The CDC recommends the following groups get screened for gonorrhea every year:

  • sexually active men who have sex with men
  • sexually active women under the age of 25
  • sexually active women who have new or multiple partners

Notify all your sexual partners if you receive a gonorrhea diagnosis. They will need to be tested and possibly treated, too. Don’t have sex until you’ve completed treatment and your doctor confirms the infection is cured.