Background: Borrelia burgdorferi is difficult to detect in synovial fluid, which limits our understanding of the pathogenesis of Lyme arthritis, particularly when arthritis persists despite antibiotic therapy.
Methods: Using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), we attempted to detect B. burgdorferi DNA in joint-fluid samples obtained over a 17-year period. The samples were tested in two separate laboratories with four sets of primers and probes, three of which target plasmid DNA that encodes outer-surface protein A (OspA).
Results: B. burgdorferi DNA was detected in 75 of 88 patients with Lyme arthritis (85 percent) and in none of 64 control patients. Each of the three OspA primer-probe sets was sensitive, and the results were moderately concordant in the two laboratories (kappa = 0.54 to 0.73). Of 73 patients with Lyme arthritis that was untreated or treated with only short courses of oral antibiotics, 70 (96 percent) had positive PCR results. In contrast, of 19 patients who received either parenteral antibiotics or long courses of oral antibiotics (> or = 1 month), only 7 (37 percent) had positive tests (P < 0.001). None of these seven patients had received more than two months of oral antibiotic treatment or more than three weeks of intravenous antibiotic treatment. Of 10 patients with chronic arthritis (continuous joint inflammation for one year or more) despite multiple courses of antibiotics, 7 had consistently negative tests in samples obtained three months to two years after treatment.
Conclusions: PCR testing can detect B. burgdorferi DNA in synovial fluid. This test may be able to show whether Lyme arthritis that persists after antibiotic treatment is due to persistence of the spirochete.