Reactive arthritis refers to pain, swelling, stiffness or redness in a joint following an infection in the bowel or genital tract. The immune system (the body’s defense against infection) appears to overreact in response to the infection and starts attacking healthy tissue in the joints, causing them to become inflamed.
It is most common in men between the ages of 20 and 40, but can also affect women and children.
Symptoms develop within a few weeks after an infection, most often in the knees, ankles or toes first and possibly in the wrists, elbows, spine and tendons. Inflammation may spread to the genital tract and urethra, causing an urgency to urinate and a burning sensation while urinating. Another side effect may be irritation in the eyes, causing redness and possibly blurred vision.
Usually, reactive arthritis is distinguished from other forms of arthritis because of the link to an earlier infection. This might be food poisoning or an infection of the genital tract, such as chlamydia or non-specific urethritis.
The bacteria that lead to reactive arthritis are very common, but not everyone who gets an infection will develop the condition. It’s important to note that reactive arthritis itself is not infectious.
Diagnosis is largely based on symptoms of the infections and their effects on joints and muscles. Doctors may order a test for the HLA-B27 gene as people who have this gene may be more likely to develop reactive arthritis.
How can I manage my reactive arthritis?
Symptoms usually last 3 to 12 months, but may recur in a small number of people and become chronic or long-term. Most people recover completely with no permanent joint problems. Treatment depends on how far the condition has developed and its effects on the body.
Antibiotics may be prescribed to treat the bacterial infection that triggered the reactive arthritis. Early stages of inflammation can be treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS). Treatment for later stages may include disease-modifying drugs (DMARDS) to control inflammation or steroid injections for swollen joints.
Ways to look after yourself while recovering from reactive arthritis include:
- Managing your pain – with non-medication approaches as well as drugs
- Exercise to increase flexibility and strengthen muscles – start gradually as your symptoms improve
- Rest and relaxation to ease pain, release muscle tension and reduce stress
- Support from your healthcare team, family and friends.