Arthritis, Septic

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  • Infection due to bacterial invasion of the joint space
  • Systems affected: musculoskeletal
  • Synonyms: suppurative arthritis; infectious arthritis; pyarthrosis; pyogenic arthritis; bacterial arthritis


  • May occur at any age; incidence is higher in very young and in the elderly.
  • Prevalence: 27% of patients presenting with monoarticular arthritis have nongonococcal septic arthritis (1).
  • Gender differences:
    • Gonococcal: female > male
    • Nongonococcal: male > female

Etiology and Pathophysiology

  • Multiple pathogens
  • Nongonococcal:
    • Staphylococcus aureus (most common in adults)
      • MRSA risk increased in elderly, intravenous drug users (IVDU), postsurgical
    • Streptococcus spp. (second most common in adults)
    • Gram-negative rods (GNR): IVDU, trauma, extremes of age, immunosuppressed
  • Neisseria gonorrhoeae (most common in young, sexually active adults)
  • Other: rickettsial (e.g., Lyme), fungal, mycobacterial
  • Risk by specific age (2):
    • <1 month: S. aureus, group B streptococcus (GBS), GNR
    • 1 month to 4 years: S. aureus, Streptococcus pneumoniae, Neisseria meningitidis
    • 16 to 40 years: N. meningitidis, S. aureus
    • >40 years: S. aureus
  • Specific high-risk groups:
    • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA): S. aureus
    • IVDU: S. aureus, GNR, opportunistic pathogens
    • Neonates: GBS
    • Immunocompromised: gram-negative bacilli, fungi
    • Trauma patients with open injuries: mixed flora
  • Pathogenesis:
    • Hematogenous spread (most common)
    • Direct inoculation by microorganisms secondary to trauma or iatrogenesis (e.g., joint surgery)
    • Adjacent spread (e.g., osteomyelitis)
  • Pathophysiology:
    • Microorganisms initially enter through synovial membrane and spread to the synovial fluid.
    • Resulting inflammatory response releases cytokines and destructive proteases leading to systemic symptoms and joint damage.

Risk Factors

  • Age >80 years
  • Low socioeconomic status, alcoholism
  • Cellulitis and skin ulcers
  • Violation of joint capsule
    • Prior orthopedic surgery
    • Intra-articular steroid injection
    • Trauma
  • History of previous joint disease
    • Inflammatory arthritis (RA: 10-fold increased risk)
    • Osteoarthritis
    • Crystal arthritides
  • Systemic illness
    • Diabetes mellitus, liver disease, HIV, malignancy, end-stage renal disease/hemodialysis, immunosuppression, sickle cell anemia
  • Risks for hematogenous spread
    • IVDU, severe sepsis/systemic infection

General Prevention

  • Prompt treatment of skin and soft tissue infections.
  • Control risk factors.
  • Immunization (S. pneumoniae, N. meningitidis)

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