Pacific Rim Orthopedic Surgeons

Septic Arthritis

What is Septic Arthritis?

Septic arthritis is a rare condition that affects one or many joints in the body. The joint infection is serious and can affect both joint fluid and joint tissues. While septic arthritis occurs more often in children than adults, it can have several causes and includes symptoms such as limited range of motion and intense pain.

Treatment for septic arthritis must be sought as quickly as possible as long-term damage to the cartilage and bone within the joint can result from the infection.

A child holding their knee in pain.

Symptoms & Causes of Infectious Arthritis

Septic arthritis symptoms include:

  • Pain and tenderness in the affected joint
  • Swelling and warmth at the affected joint
  • Limited range of motion in the joint affected
  • Fever
  • Not wanting to use or move the joint affected by septic arthritis

The cause of septic arthritis is an infection, but that can result from bacteria, mycobacteria, a virus, fungus, or other pathogens. Most cases of septic arthritis result from an infection beginning elsewhere in the body and spreading through the blood to one of the joints. There are specific organisms known to cause septic arthritis:

  • Staphylococcus aureus: also known as staph, is the most common cause of septic arthritis in children and adults
  • Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus: MRSA is a type of staph infection resistant to some antibiotics. People who use IV drugs, are HIV positive, or have diabetes are at a higher risk for this
  • Neisseria meningitides: the bacteria that cause meningitis
  • Neisseria gonorrhoeae: the same bacterium that causes gonorrhea
  • Streptococci, Groups A and B: a type of bacteria that affects older adults and people with chronic diseases such as cirrhosis or diabetes.
A doctor examining a patient's hand.

Identifying Septic Arthritis

Septic arthritis occurs when an infection has spread to one or more of a person’s joints, causing inflammation in the cartilage surface that lines the joints and the synovial fluid, which lubricates joints.

The term “arthritis” can cover several different types and the term denotes joint inflammation. Arthritis, no matter the sort, can affect people of any age though, as mentioned previously, septic arthritis is more commonly found in children than adults.

What Joints are Most at Risk?

As septic arthritis is a joint infection, it can spread to other parts of the body if not treated, leading to sepsis and becoming a life-threatening condition. The joints that are at most risk of being affected by septic arthritis depend on several factors, but in general, the larger joints in the lower half of the body, like the hips, knees, and ankles, are most commonly affected:

  • Adults develop septic arthritis in their knees more commonly
  • Children are more likely to develop septic arthritis in their hip
  • Those who use injection drugs are more likely to develop septic arthritis in their pelvis and lower spine joints, as well as in the joint that connects the collarbone to the breastbone or sternum.
A man holding his knee as he pauses in his jogging.

Diagnosis & Treatment

To properly diagnose septic arthritis a physical exam of the joint needs to take place and if the doctor suspects septic arthritis, they will withdraw synovial fluid from the affected joint. They will order lab tests on the fluid to look for bacteria and confirm the diagnosis. 

There are several other tests to help confirm septic arthritis, including:

  • X-rays: to show widened joint spaces and bulging of soft tissues
  • Synovial fluid aspiration: withdrawing the synovial fluid from the joint to check for bacteria
  • Blood tests: to see if the body’s immune system is responding to infection and rule out other potential causes
  • Ultrasound: to help the doctor see how swollen the joint is
  • MRI: this test can help detect early cases of septic arthritis. 

To treat septic arthritis, your healthcare provider may recommend:

  • Surgery to remove the inflamed tissue and administer intravenous antibiotics
  • Antibiotics are the standard treatment for septic arthritis, either through an IV or as pills
  • Joint fluid drainage is often used more than once during recovery 
  • Removal of an artificial joint may be needed if the sept arthritis has affected it and replaced it with a joint spacer. After a few months of recovery, you’ll have the prosthetic joint replaced.

Make an Appointment with our Specialists

If you’ve suffered any of the symptoms listed above, we encourage you to make an appointment with our specialists!

We at Proliance Pacific Rim Orthopedic Surgeons strive to help our patients achieve a return to normal activity through compassionate and exceptional care using evidence-based medicine in a patient-friendly environment. We are committed to bringing you a high standard of care that is patient-focused, with the goal of improving your quality of life.