Reactive arthritis is a condition that causes inflammation, pain and swelling of the joints. It usually develops after an infection, often in the bowel or genital areas.
The normal role of your body’s immune system is to fight off infections to keep you healthy. In some people this activity of the immune system causes joints to become inflamed, however the joints themselves are not actually infected. About one in 10 people with specific types of infections will get reactive arthritis.
Symptoms can affect many parts of the body and commonly include:
- Pain, swelling and stiffness of joints, often the knees and ankles
- Pain and stiffness in the buttocks and back (also known as spondylitis, meaning inflammation of the spine)
- Pain in tendons, such as at the back of the heel (tendons are the strong cords that attach muscles onto bones)
- Rash on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet
- Pain and redness in the eyes.
- Mouth ulcers – painful ulcers in the mouth or on the tongue can develop.
- Urinary symptoms – frequent urination, discomfort, or a burning sensation while urinating may occur due to urinary tract inflammation.
Who is affected?
About one in 10 people with specific types of infections will get reactive arthritis. The most common types of theses infections are:
- Chlamydia bacteria, which are transmitted during sexual activity
- Salmonella, shigella, yersinia or campylobacter bacteria, which cause food poisoning.
It is not known why some people who get these infections develop reactive arthritis and others do not.
How is it diagnosed?
Reactive arthritis can by diagnosed by your doctor from your symptoms and physical examination.
Your doctor may also order blood tests for inflammation, or to help rule out other types of arthritis.
How is it treated?
For most people reactive arthritis disappears completely with time and causes no permanent joint problems. The majority of people will recover completely within three to 12 months.
During this time symptoms may be worse some days and better on other. Most people need some form of treatment, usually medicines, while symptoms are present.
About one in five people need long-term treatment as their arthritis does not improve or returns.
Treatment for reactive arthritis will depend on the exact symptoms and the severity of the condition. Treatments may include:
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) for long-term arthritis
- Antibiotics, which may be required to treat the original infection.
Researchers are looking into new ways of diagnosing, treating and managing spondyloarthropathy (a family of diseases which includes reactive arthritis).