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Gonococcal Arthritis Treatment & Management

  • Author: Rachel Robbins, MD; Chief Editor: Herbert S Diamond, MD  more...
Updated: Jul 27, 2016

Approach Considerations

Approach Considerations

When septic arthritis is suspected, empiric antibiotics directed against likely pathogens should be used until confirmatory laboratory data are available. Antibiotic coverage in healthy hosts should initially include gram-positive organisms, which account for approximately 80% of nongonococcal monoarthritis cases (Staphylococcus aureus, 60%; non–group A Streptococcus species, 15%; S pneumoniae, 3%). Gram-negative organisms (18%) should be covered in patients who are immunocompromised, elderly, or otherwise at risk.

Most patients with suspected acute infectious arthritis, including gonococcal arthritis, should be hospitalized to establish a diagnosis and to monitor for improvement or complications. Daily synovial fluid drainage is recommended for purulent effusions associated with gonococcal arthritis. Surgical drainage is needed when arthrocentesis is ineffective. The transition to oral antibiotics can usually be made 24-48 hours after clinical improvement.

Bed rest during hospitalization and brief immobilization of the septic joint aid in decreasing pain, especially when nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are not used.


Pharmacologic Therapy

Because of resistance to oral cephalosporins in the United States, there is only one first-line regimen, which is dual treatment with ceftriaxone and azithromycin. In addition, persons infected with Neisseria gonorrhoeae frequently are coinfected with Chlamydia trachomatis; this finding has led to the longstanding recommendation that persons treated for gonococcal infection also be treated with a regimen that is effective against uncomplicated genital C trachomatis infection, further supporting the use of dual therapy that includes azithromycin.[15]

Disseminated gonococcal infection (DGI) frequently results in petechial or pustular acral skin lesions, asymmetric polyarthralgia, tenosynovitis, or oligoarticular septic arthritis. Hospitalization and consultation with an infectious-disease specialist are recommended for initial therapy, especially for persons who might not comply with treatment, have an uncertain diagnosis, or have purulent synovial effusions or other complications. Examination for clinical evidence of endocarditis and meningitis should be performed.[15]

The 2015 CDC recommendations for disseminated gonococcal infection are:

  • Ceftriaxone 1 g IM/IV every 24 h plus a single dose of azithromycin 1 g PO
  • Alternative regimen - Cefotaxime 1 g IV every 8 h plus a single dose of azithromycin 1 g PO

When treating for the arthritis-dermatitis syndrome, the clinician can switch to an oral agent, with the choice guided by antimicrobial susceptibility testing, 24-48 h after substantial clinical improvement. The total treatment course should be at least 7 days.

Spectinomycin was once recommended in this setting but is no longer available in the United States.[16]

Patients should be advised to refer their sexual partners for evaluation and treatment, as partners of patients with DGI often have asymptomatic infections.

Patients with confirmed diagnosis of a localized gonococcal infection can probably be discharged with outpatient medications if they are considered reliable for follow-up care. Synovial effusions may require a longer duration of antibiotic therapy, but open drainage is rarely required. Intra-articular antibiotics have no known benefit.,


Arthrocentesis, Arthroscopy, and Surgical Drainage

Daily aspiration with synovial fluid drainage has been recommended for purulent effusions associated with gonococcal arthritis. Open drainage or arthroscopy of infected joints is needed when arthrocentesis is insufficient.

Although patients with persistent joint effusion despite early antibiotic therapy may require frequent joint aspiration, joint effusions in gonococcal arthritis rarely result in permanent damage. Arthroscopic evaluation or surgical drainage that requires an orthopedic surgeon is rarely needed.

Patients with acute endocarditis secondary to gonococcal infection may require cardiothoracic surgery.



Measures that may help prevent gonococcal arthritis include the following:

  • Patient education
  • Identification of high-risk sexual practices
  • Promoting use of protective barrier contraceptives (ie, condom)
  • Contacting the patient’s sexual partners for education, examination, and possible treatment


Consider consulting a rheumatologist for assistance in the evaluation and management of septic joints.

Consider consulting an infectious disease specialist for management of DGI cases and determination of optimal antibiotic therapy later in the course of the disease or if there is concern for treatment failure.

Consider consulting a cardiologist if acute endocarditis is suspected.

An orthopedic consultation may be required for arthroscopic or surgical drainage of an inaccessible joint (eg, the hip) or for failure of nonsurgical management (ie, daily aspiration).


Long-Term Monitoring

Reevaluate patients to ensure resolution of illness. Reculture all known infected sites at least 5-7 days after the last dose of antibiotic therapy. Patients screened for syphilis must be screened again in 4-6 weeks, and HIV screening must be repeated again in 6 months.

Contact, examine, and possibly treat the patient’s sexual partners.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Rachel Robbins, MD Internist and Chief of Medical Residents, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center; Assistant Professor of Medicine, Uniformed Services University

Rachel Robbins, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Physicians

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Michael P Keith, MD, FACP, FACR Chief of Rheumatology, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center; Associate Professor of Medicine, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, F Edward Hebert School of Medicine

Michael P Keith, MD, FACP, FACR is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Physicians, American College of Rheumatology, Clinical Immunology Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Herbert S Diamond, MD Visiting Professor of Medicine, Division of Rheumatology, State University of New York Downstate Medical Center; Chairman Emeritus, Department of Internal Medicine, Western Pennsylvania Hospital

Herbert S Diamond, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American College of Physicians, American College of Rheumatology, American Medical Association, Phi Beta Kappa

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Lawrence H Brent, MD Associate Professor of Medicine, Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University; Chair, Program Director, Department of Medicine, Division of Rheumatology, Albert Einstein Medical Center

Lawrence H Brent, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Association of Immunologists, American College of Physicians, and American College of Rheumatology

Disclosure: Genentech Honoraria Speaking and teaching; Genentech Grant/research funds Other; Amgen Honoraria Speaking and teaching; Pfizer Honoraria Speaking and teaching; Abbott Immunology Honoraria Speaking and teaching; Takeda Honoraria Speaking and teaching; UCB Speaking and teaching; Omnicare Consulting fee Consulting; Centocor Consulting fee Consulting

Timothy M Straight, MD Instructor, Department of Medicine, Uniformed Services University School of Medicine

Timothy M Straight, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Physicians

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Medscape Salary Employment

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synovial joint
The lesion on this patient's heel was due to the systemic dissemination of the N. gonorrhoeae bacteria.
The foot of this patient is swollen due to gonococcal arthritis.
This patient presented with cutaneous foot lesions that were diagnosed as a disseminated gonococcal infection.
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