What is septic arthritis joint drainage?

Septic Arthritis Joint Drainage
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Open drainage of a joint: Overview

Surgery to drain and clean out a joint or joints is done when there is a serious infection in the joint. The infection is called septic arthritis. The surgery removes infected fluid and material from the joint. This type of surgery is often done on knee, hip, and shoulder joints.

Depending on which joint is affected, a doctor may choose to use arthroscopy. This is a way to find problems and do surgery inside a joint without making a large cut (incision). Your doctor puts a lighted tube with a tiny camera and surgical tools through small incisions near the infected area. The camera is called an arthroscope, or scope. Then the doctor may use tools to clean out and drain the infection from the joint. Small stitches may be used to close the incisions.

If you have open surgery, the doctor will make a cut in the skin near the infected joint. The infected fluid and material are removed. The doctor will close the skin with stitches or staples. You will have a scar on the area. The scar will fade with time.

Your doctor may leave a small tube, called a drain, in the joint. This removes extra fluid. You will probably have the drain for about a day. Your doctor will give you instructions on how to care for it.

Most people go home a few days after surgery. When you return to work will depend on the type of work you do. It will also depend on whether you had arthroscopy or open surgery and which joint was affected.

How can you care for yourself after an open drainage of a joint?


  • Rest when you feel tired.
  • You may be able to take showers, if your doctor says it is okay.
  • If you do have a drain, follow your doctor's instructions to empty and care for it.


  • You can eat your normal diet. If your stomach is upset, try bland, low-fat foods like plain rice, broiled chicken, toast, and yogurt.


  • Your doctor will tell you if and when you can restart your medicines. You also will be given instructions about taking any new medicines.
  • If you stopped taking aspirin or some other blood thinner, your doctor will tell you when to start taking it again.
  • Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
    • If the doctor gave you a prescription medicine for pain, take it as prescribed.
    • If you are not taking a prescription pain medicine, ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter medicine.
  • If your doctor prescribed antibiotics, take them as directed. Do not stop taking them just because you feel better. You need to take the full course of antibiotics.

Incision care

  • You will have a dressing over the cut (incision). A dressing helps the incision heal and protects it. Your doctor will tell you how to take care of this.
  • Wash the area daily with warm, soapy water, and pat it dry. Don't use hydrogen peroxide or alcohol. They can slow healing.
  • Your doctor will tell you when to come back if your wound dressing needs to be changed or removed.


  • Your doctor will give you instructions on what activities are okay for you to do.

Ice and elevation

  • Put ice or a cold pack on your joint for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. Try to do this every 1 to 2 hours for the next 3 days (when you are awake) or until the swelling goes down. Put a thin cloth between the ice and your skin.
  • If possible, prop up the sore joint on a pillow when you ice it or anytime you sit or lie down during the next 3 days. Try to keep it above the level of your heart. This will help reduce swelling.

Other instructions

  • You may need to use crutches after surgery if the joint is used for walking. Use crutches for as long as your doctor tells you to. Your doctor will tell you when you can put weight on the joint. It may help to use a backpack or wear clothes with a lot of pockets to carry items.
  • You may wear a sling or brace if you had surgery on the upper part of your body. The doctor will tell you how long you need to wear a support device.

How do you prepare for open drainage of a joint?

Surgery can be stressful. This information will help you understand what you can expect. And it will help you safely prepare for surgery.

Preparing for surgery

  • You may need to shower or bathe with a special soap the night before and the morning of your surgery. The soap contains chlorhexidine. It reduces the amount of bacteria on your skin that could cause an infection after surgery.
  • Be sure you have someone to take you home. Anesthesia and pain medicine will make it unsafe for you to drive or get home on your own.
  • Understand exactly what surgery is planned, along with the risks, benefits, and other options.
  • If you take a medicine that prevents blood clots, your doctor may tell you to stop taking it before your surgery. Or your doctor may tell you to keep taking it. (These medicines include aspirin and other blood thinners.) Make sure that you understand exactly what your doctor wants you to do.
  • Tell your doctor ALL the medicines, vitamins, supplements, and herbal remedies you take. Some may increase the risk of problems during your surgery. Your doctor will tell you if you should stop taking any of them before the surgery and how soon to do it.
  • Make sure your doctor and the hospital have a copy of your advance directive. If you don’t have one, you may want to prepare one. It lets others know your health care wishes. It’s a good thing to have before any type of surgery or procedure.

After open drainage of a joint: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You passed out (lost consciousness).
  • You have severe trouble breathing.
  • You have sudden chest pain and shortness of breath, or you cough up blood.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have pain that does not get better after you take pain medicine.
  • You have loose stitches, or your incision comes open.
  • You have a drain, and it comes out.
  • You are bleeding through your dressing. A small amount of blood is normal.
  • You have symptoms of a blood clot in your arm or leg (called a deep vein thrombosis). These may include:
    • Pain in the arm, calf, back of the knee, thigh, or groin.
    • Redness and swelling in the arm, leg, or groin.
  • You have signs of infection, such as:
    • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness.
    • Red streaks leading from the incision.
    • Pus draining from the incision.
    • A fever.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You do not get better as expected.

After open drainage of a joint: Overview

You had surgery to clean out an infection in one or more of your joints. The doctor removed fluid and material from the joint. You may feel sore and have some swelling at the surgical site.

Your doctor will give you specific instructions on when you can do your normal activities again, such as driving and going back to work.

What happens on the day of an open drainage of a joint?

  • Follow the instructions exactly about when to stop eating and drinking. If you don't, your surgery may be canceled. If your doctor told you to take your medicines on the day of surgery, take them with only a sip of water.
  • Follow your doctor's instructions about when to bathe or shower before your surgery. Do not apply lotions, perfumes, deodorants, or nail polish.
  • Do not shave the surgical site yourself.
  • Take off all jewelry and piercings. And take out contact lenses, if you wear them.

At the hospital or surgery center

  • Bring a picture ID.
  • The area for surgery is often marked to make sure there are no errors.
  • You will be kept comfortable and safe by your anesthesia provider. You will be asleep during the surgery.
  • The surgery will take about 1 to 1½ hours.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.