Long-term effects of septic arthritis may include joint damage, a reduced range of motion, and chronic pain.

Septic arthritis occurs if an infection travels through the bloodstream to a joint. Without prompt treatment, septic arthritis can cause severe complications.

People can fully recover with treatment, but some may experience long-term effects, such as joint damage and a reduced range of motion.

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Without prompt treatment, septic arthritis may have serious long-term effects on the body. It can lead to rapid deterioration of the affected joint, which may occur within a few days of the infection reaching the joint.

Septic arthritis causes a sudden and severe inflammatory response, which can cause permanent destruction of the joint. Around 10–32% of people with septic arthritis may experience long-term reductions in mobility.

The condition may cause joint dysfunction, which can lead to difficulty carrying out daily activities.

In some cases, septic arthritis can be life threatening. According to a 2018 review, the in-hospital mortality rate is 3–15%.

Possible complications of septic arthritis may include:

  • Osteomyelitis: Osteomyelitis is a severe bone infection that can be acute or chronic. Prompt treatment can lead to a positive outlook, although the infection may reoccur.
  • Chronic pain: Septic arthritis can lead to joint damage, which can cause long lasting pain and decreased mobility.
  • Osteonecrosis: Osteonecrosis occurs if bone tissue does not get enough blood supply, leading to bone tissue death. The time between symptom onset and loss of joint function may vary from a few weeks to over a year. Early treatment may heal the bone or help maintain joint function.
  • Different leg lengths: People may require treatment to resolve leg length discrepancy. Depending on the length difference, treatments may include insoles, shoe lifts, insertion of a metal rod, or surgery to equalize leg length.
  • Sepsis: Without treatment, septic arthritis may lead to sepsis, which occurs if the body has an extreme response to infection. Sepsis is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment.
  • Death: Septic arthritis can be life threatening. Factors linked to an increased risk of death may include preexisting joint disease, age, delayed treatment, and the type of infection.

After treatment for septic arthritis, people will need to move the affected joint once the pain and inflammation ease. This helps prevent long-term stiffness.

A physical therapist can help people to find suitable exercises to help recovery and manage long-term effects.

To help manage long-term pain, people may find the following helpful:

  • resting the affected joint as needed
  • elevating the affected joint above the heart, which can also help reduce swelling
  • applying an ice pack to the affected joint for 20 minutes at a time to help reduce pain and swelling
  • doing daily exercises, including strengthening and stretching, to help reduce pain and improve flexibility

People may require ongoing physical therapy due to decreased mobility from septic arthritis. This may occur at a rehabilitation facility and may be acute or subacute, depending on a person’s needs.

Treatments for septic arthritis may include:

  • Antibiotics: If a bacterial infection causes septic arthritis, doctors will treat the infection with oral or intravenous antibiotics. Some people will take antibiotics for a few days, whereas others may need a course over several months. Viral infections typically resolve themselves, and doctors can prescribe antifungals to treat a fungal infection.
  • Joint drainage: A doctor will drain the joint fluid to remove any infected fluid in the joint. Joint drainage reduces inflammation, relieves pain, and helps prevent further joint damage. In most cases, a doctor will withdraw fluid with a needle, but sometimes, people may need minor or major surgery to drain the joint.

Treatment for any complications will depend on the type of complication. Treatment may include surgery for joint damage or joint replacement or antibiotic treatment for infections such as osteomyelitis.

People will need to contact a doctor or emergency department as soon as possible if they have symptoms of septic arthritis. Symptoms typically occur suddenly and include:

The most common sites of septic arthritis are the:

  • knees
  • hips
  • shoulders
  • elbows

Septic arthritis typically affects only one joint, but in some cases, may affect multiple joints. It may also affect the wrists or ankles.

Early diagnosis and prompt treatment are important for improving the outcomes of septic arthritis and helping to prevent long-term joint damage or serious complications.

In most cases, early treatment with antibiotics will work to treat septic arthritis, and people will have few to no long-term effects.

In some cases, people may experience a decreased range of motion or pain after treatment.

After receiving treatment, people will need to follow a gentle movement and exercise plan to help build muscle strength and increase their range of motion.

People may work with a team of healthcare professionals, such as physical and occupational therapists, to help them recover and manage any long-term effects of septic arthritis.

Septic arthritis can cause joint damage, chronic pain, and severe complications. Prompt treatment is important in helping to prevent permanent joint damage and other long-term effects.

Treatment may help some people fully recover, while others may experience some lasting pain or a reduced range of motion.

Physiotherapy and other treatment therapies can help people to manage any long-term effects of septic arthritis.