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Bacteria enter the joint from the bloodstream; from a contiguous site of infection in bone or soft tissue; or by direct inoculation during surgery, injection, animal or human bite, or trauma. In hematogenous infection, bacteria escape from synovial capillaries, which have no limiting basement membrane, and within hours provoke neutrophilic infiltration of the synovium. Neutrophils and bacteria enter the joint space; later, bacteria adhere to articular cartilage. Degradation of cartilage begins within 48 h as a result of increased intraarticular pressure, release of proteases and cytokines from chondrocytes and synovial macrophages, and invasion of the cartilage by bacteria and inflammatory cells. Histologic studies reveal bacteria lining the synovium and cartilage as well as abscesses extending into the synovium, cartilage, and—in severe cases—subchondral bone. Synovial proliferation results in the formation of a pannus over the cartilage, and thrombosis of inflamed synovial vessels develops. Bacterial factors that appear important in the pathogenesis of infective arthritis include various surface-associated adhesins in S. aureus that permit adherence to cartilage and endotoxins that promote chondrocyte-mediated breakdown of cartilage.


The hematogenous route of infection is the most common route in all age groups, and nearly every bacterial pathogen is capable of causing septic arthritis. In infants, group B streptococci, gram-negative enteric bacilli, and S. aureus are the most common pathogens. Since the advent of the Haemophilus influenzae vaccine, the predominant causes among children <5 years of age have been S. aureus, Streptococcus pyogenes (group A Streptococcus), and (in some centers) Kingella kingae. Among young adults and adolescents, N. gonorrhoeae is the most commonly implicated organism. S. aureus accounts for most nongonococcal isolates in adults of all ages; gram-negative bacilli, pneumococci, and β-hemolytic streptococci—particularly groups A and B but also groups C, G, and F—are involved in up to one-third of cases in older adults, especially those with underlying comorbid illnesses.

Infections after surgical procedures or penetrating injuries are due most often to S. aureus and occasionally to other gram-positive bacteria or gram-negative bacilli. Infections with coagulase-negative staphylococci are unusual except after the implantation of prosthetic joints or arthroscopy. Anaerobic organisms, often in association with aerobic or facultative bacteria, are found after human bites and when decubitus ulcers or intraabdominal abscesses spread into adjacent joints. Polymicrobial infections complicate traumatic injuries with extensive contamination. Bites and scratches from cats and other animals may introduce Pasteurella multocida or Bartonella henselae into joints either directly or hematogenously, and bites from humans may introduce Eikenella corrodens or other components of the oral flora. Penetration of a sharp object through a shoe is associated with Pseudomonas aeruginosa arthritis in the foot.


Epidemiology of Nongonococcal Bacterial Arthritis

Although hematogenous infections with virulent organisms such as S. aureus, H. influenzae, and pyogenic streptococci occur ...

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