Stop Adding Antibiotics to Irrigation Solutions

The rate of adoption of knowledge gleaned from multiple well-done randomized clinical trials into medical practice is disappointingly slow. This has been well-documented in cardiovascular medicine, and the examples in orthopaedic surgery are embarrassingly similar. A corollary phenomenon exists with the slow rate of transfer of information from basic science studies to orthopaedic clinical practice.

These “disconnects” occur largely because we tend to adopt the practices of our residency faculty, often without any rational inquiry. Having been an oral examiner for the Part II ABOS Oral Boards, I frequently asked, “Why did you decide on that approach to the patient’s problem?” And I often heard in response, “That’s the way it was done in my residency.”

In the September 18, 2019 issue of The Journal, Goswami et al,. report findings from a well-designed in vitro study demonstrating that the common practice of adding the antibiotics polymyxin and bacitracin to irrigation solution to lower the risk of infection is not based on sound evidence. While adding antibiotics might make intuitive sense, according to these authors, it is “a futile exercise.”

After testing 8 different irrigation solutions for efficacy against S. aureus and E. coli and for toxicity to musculoskeletal cells, Goswami et al. concluded that “our results provide further support for the use of dilute povidone-iodine because of its bactericidal properties, relatively limited toxicity,… and modest cost.” They go on to say that their findings bring into question the widespread usage of polymyxin-bacitracin.

Certainly, we need to assemble more evidence from additional research to identify the optimal irrigation solution for orthopaedic surgery, but in the interim, we should probably stop using polymyxin-bacitracin. Doing so would have the added benefits of lowering costs and not exacerbating the serious problem of antimicrobial resistance. There are many areas of clinical practice where we have no evidence either for against a particular approach. But when we do have solid evidence, even if it’s from an in vitro study, we should work together to improve the rates of adoption into clinical practice.

Marc Swiontkowski, MD
JBJS Editor-in-Chief

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5 responses to “Stop Adding Antibiotics to Irrigation Solutions”

  1. Andrew King says :

    Adding gentamicin to bone cement and vancomycin powder to autologous bone graft both have strong evidence of efficacy. So it seems reasonable to add antibiotics to wound irrigation even if evidence has not yet accrued one way or the other. Blaming the practice on causing widespread antibiotic resistance is far-fetched. I get the feeling you are venting a pet peeve!

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  2. Maurice Carter says :

    You are very likely correct. The risk of change is the risk of litigation.

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  3. jon reiswig says :

    I understood that povidone-iodine was also not helpful.

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  4. J P Kallan M.D. says :

    We learned that in Vietnam casualties and in the contaminated civilian wounds more than 50 years ago.

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  5. Lowell Gill says :

    Has a comparison study been done with povidone-iodine and antibiotic irrigation such as bacitracin?

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