Diagnosing Septic Arthritis

When considering a septic arthritis diagnosis, a doctor will usually begin by reviewing the person's medical history. Then, the doctor will typically conduct a physical exam to look for signs of septic arthritis. Tests doctors may recommend when diagnosing this condition include imaging tests, a test of synovial fluid from the affected joint, and a spinal tap.

How Is Septic Arthritis Diagnosed?

There is no one specific test that can be used for diagnosing septic arthritis. Therefore, in order to make a diagnosis, the healthcare provider will usually begin by asking a number of questions. This is known as getting a person's medical history. Some of these questions may be related to:
  • Current or recent symptoms, including fever, cold sweats, extreme tiredness, or irritability (in infants)
  • Other medical conditions
  • Any recent surgeries
  • Current medications
  • A family history of any medical conditions, including arthritis.
After asking several questions, the healthcare provider will typically perform a physical exam looking for septic arthritis symptoms and signs. During the physical exam, the healthcare provider will examine the person's joints, skin, reflexes, and muscle strength.
After the medical history and physical exam, the healthcare provider may recommend certain tests to help make a septic arthritis diagnosis.

Tests Used When Diagnosing Septic Arthritis

Certain tests your healthcare provider may recommend to help diagnose septic arthritis include:
  • X-rays or other imaging tests
  • Testing the synovial fluid
  • Spinal tap.
X-rays or Other Imaging Tests
Doctors sometimes use x-rays when diagnosing septic arthritis. However, most of the time, the early effects of septic arthritis cannot be seen on an x-ray. Therefore, x-rays are more useful for ruling out other medical conditions that share similar symptoms with septic arthritis. Septic arthritis usually has to go untreated for at least two weeks before the damage it causes can be detected on an x-ray.
In certain situations, your healthcare provider may recommend a CT scan or MRI. These imaging tests are better at showing early changes that can occur with septic arthritis.
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