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An Algorithmic Approach to the Suspected Septic Wrist

Claiborne, Jeffrey R. MD; Branch, Leslie G. MD; Reynolds, Michael MD; Defranzo, Anthony J. MD

doi: 10.1097/SAP.0000000000000974
Hand Surgery

An acutely painful, erythematous wrist can be due to a variety of pathologic processes, including crystalline arthropathy, infection, trauma, osteoarthritis, and systemic disease. The broad differential diagnosis of the inflamed wrist and nonspecific clinical findings make accurate diagnosis challenging. There is no published clinical or laboratory criterion that reliably differentiates septic wrist arthritis from a sterile inflammatory arthropathy. For septic joint patients, long-term results are notably poorer in patients with a delay in treatment, therefore establishing evidenced-based guidelines deserves attention.

After a comprehensive literature review, we present evidenced-based guidelines and an algorithm for the management of the patient with an acutely inflamed wrist concerning for septic arthritis.

For determining a diagnosis, systemic blood laboratory results are extremely variable and unreliable. Despite the attention given to the diagnostic potential of synovial fluid tests, the literature consistently demonstrates that diagnostic certainty cannot always be ascertained at the time of presentation based on aspiration fluid samples. Additionally, the investigative work does not necessarily end at the discovery of crystals since concomitant infection is a rare but well reported entity.

Relative to larger joints, the wrist is far less likely to be infected and is easier to drain of debris, and therefore the empiric management of an inflamed wrist joint should reflect these differences. For treatment of the suspected or confirmed septic wrist, prompt initiation with appropriate antibiotics and drainage of joint purulence is critical to rapid recovery. However, the best strategy to clear the joint space of infectious material is controversial. Although the traditional standard of care is open drainage of a septic joint, a growing body of literature supports that for a septic wrist joint, a less invasive approach with serial aspiration can be equally efficacious with reduced morbidity and quicker recovery. If the wrist fails to improve with daily aspirations, then arthroscopy or open washout is needed.

For patients with suspected wrist joint infection or crystalline arthropathy with probable concomitant infection, a reasonable approach is admission for systemic antibiotics and daily arthrocentesis. If the wrist fails to improve or worsens, then surgical treatment may be pursued. This treatment strategy could potentially avoid the morbidity of surgery while ensuring that no septic wrist goes untreated.

From the Department of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, Winston-Salem, NC.

Received August 30, 2016, and accepted for publication, after revision November 11, 2016.

Conflicts of interest and sources of funding: none declared.

Reprints: Anthony J. Defranzo, MD, Wake Forest Baptist Health Department of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Medical Center Boulevard Winston-Salem, NC 27157. E-mail:

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