Because of the high morbidity and mortality in patients with bacterial arthritis, rapidly and correctly diagnosing this critical condition is a challenge to emergency clinicians. Synovial fluid samples were obtained from 75 patients with arthritis disorders who presented to an emergency service, and levels of tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), interleukin-1 beta (IL-1 beta), and interleukin-6 (IL-6) were measured. Twenty patients with culture-proven bacterial arthritis had higher levels of synovial TNF-alpha than patients with osteoarthritis or with inflammatory arthritis, including gouty arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, reactive arthritis, and lupus arthritis. There was a good sensitivity for synovial TNF-alpha level in diagnosing patients with bacterial arthritis. Nearly 100% of patients with bacterial arthritis had elevated synovial TNF-alpha levels. However, synovial IL-1 beta and IL-6 levels failed to discriminate bacterial arthritis from other inflammatory arthritis. Measurement of synovial TNF-alpha level may be useful as a diagnostic aid in emergency patients with bacterial arthritis disorders.