This inflammatory arthritis caused by bacteria can affect the joints, eyes, skin and urinary tract.
Reactive arthritis is an inflammatory type of arthritis that affects the joints, eyes, and urinary tract (bladder, vagina, urethra). It occurs when bacteria enters the blood stream and causes your body to react with inflammation in different parts of the body.
The types of bacteria that cause reactive arthritis are usually contracted through sexual contact or by eating spoiled food. The inflammatory reaction typically begins within 2 to 4 weeks after infection. Reactive arthritis is not contagious, but the bacteria that triggers the disease can pass from person to person.
Men age 40 and younger are most commonly affected. Evidence shows they are nine times more likely than women to get the disease due to a sexually transmitted infection. However, both sexes are equally likely to get it from a food-related infection.
Being infected with certain bacteria has been linked to reactive arthritis. The ones most commonly associated with reactive arthritis are:
- Chlamydia trachomatis. It is spread through sexual contact. The infection may begin in the vagina, bladder or the urethra.
- Salmonella, Shigella, Yersinia and Campylobacter. These bacteria typically infect the gastrointestinal tract.
In rare cases, the bacterium Chlamydia pneumoniae, which causes respiratory infections, may also cause reactive arthritis.
The bacteria typically enter your body in one of two ways:
- Urogenital tract. Bacteria can enter through the vagina or urethra during sexual contact and spread to the bladder.
- Gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Bacteria can enter the body if you eat spoiled food or food that came into contact with contaminated surfaces.
Doctors are not sure why some people exposed to these bacteria get the disease and others don’t. However, researchers have identified a gene, called human leukocyte antigen (HLA) B27, that makes a person more likely to get reactive arthritis. Not everyone who inherits this gene will get the disease.
The most common symptoms of reactive arthritis are inflammation in the joints, eyes, bladder and urethra (the tube that helps remove urine from the body). Sometimes, mouth sores and skin rashes may occur.
Here are some possible symptoms identified by body area.
- Pain and swelling in knees, ankles, feet and sometimes the fingers and wrists.
- Swelling of the tendons (tendinitis) or where tendons attach to the bone (enthesitis).
- Heel pain and heel spurs (bony growths in the heel).
- Lower back and buttock pain.
- Inflammation in the spine (spondylitis) or in the lower back that connect the spine to the pelvis (sacroliitis).
- Redness of the eyes.
- Eye pain and irritation.
- Blurred vision.
These symptoms can be signs of inflammation of the eyeball and eyelid (conjunctivitis, commonly known as “pink eye”) or the inner eye (uveitis).
- Pain during urination.
- Need to urinate more frequently.
Reactive arthritis symptoms can be very mild and come and go over several weeks to months, or they can be more severe. Symptoms may not be noticeable in the early stages. Urinary symptoms usually appear first but may be absent in women. This symptom may occur with, or be followed by conjunctivitis. Arthritis is usually the last symptom to appear.
With proper treatment, most people with reactive arthritis recover fully and can resume normal activities a few months after initial symptoms. However, arthritis symptoms may last up to a year, but they are usually mild and do not interfere with daily life.
Some people with reactive arthritis will have long-term, but mild, arthritis. Studies show that between 15 and 50 percent of patients will develop symptoms again, possibly due to re-infection. Back and joint pain are the symptoms that most commonly reappear. A few patients will have chronic, severe arthritis that is difficult to control with treatment and may cause joint damage.
Reactive arthritis can be difficult to diagnose because there is no specific laboratory test to confirm a person has it. The patient may be referred to a rheumatologist, depending on the severity of symptoms.
Some of the methods used to diagnose reactive arthritis include
- Physical Examination. The doctor will ask about your medical history, symptoms and current medical problems. He will examine the joints for signs of inflammation and test their range of motion. The eyes, skin, and genital areas are also examined.
- Laboratory tests. Blood, urine and stool sample tests can help rule out other conditions and confirm the diagnosis. Tests will be done to check for many things, including levels of inflammation; antibodies linked to other types of arthritis; signs of a current or recent infection; and a gene called HLA B27, which is sometimes seen in people with this disease.
- Tissue samples. Samples of tissue from the throat, urethra (men) and cervix (women) may be taken to look for signs of infection.
- Joint fluid tests. The doctor may take a sample of joint fluid from the knee to look for signs of infection or inflammation. It will also be examined for the presence of uric acid crystals, which may signal an arthritis-related condition called gout.
- X-rays. The doctor may order views of the joints, pelvis and spine to look for signs of swelling, joint damage, calcium deposits and other signs of reactive arthritis.
There is no cure for reactive arthritis.The goal of treatment is to treat infection and manage symptoms.
Since reactive arthritis may affect different parts of the body, more than one doctor may be involved in your care. A rheumatologist (a doctor with specialized training in arthritis treatment) will likely be the primary doctor. Other specialists may include:
- Dermatologist to treat skin symptoms.
- Gynecologist to treat genital symptoms in women.
- Ophthalmologist to treat eye disease.
- Orthopaedist to perform surgery if joints are severely damaged.
- Physical therapist or physiatrist to oversee the patient's exercise routine.
- Urologist to treat genital symptoms in men and women.
An antibiotic is prescribed to treat the infection. Other medications are prescribed to manage pain and inflammation. They include:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). These are often the first type of medicines used and include aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen.
- Corticosteroids. These medicines help to quickly reduce inflammation. For people with severe joint inflammation, they may be injected into the affected joint.
- Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs). A small number of patients with reactive arthritis have severe symptoms that cannot be controlled with the above-mentioned treatments. In this case, the doctor may prescribe medicines called disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs). These drugs suppress the immune system.
Exercise helps maintain and improve joint function. Strengthening exercises build up the muscles around the joint and provide better support. Range-of-motion exercises improve movement and flexibility and reduce stiffness in the affected joint.
Taking a proactive role in treatment is an important part of getting better. This process is called self management.
Self care for reactive arthritis includes making sure food is stored at proper temperatures and cooked properly. This helps prevent foodborne bacteria that can cause reactive arthritis. Some sexually transmitted infections can trigger reactive arthritis. Using condoms may lower your risk.
Staying physically active is the key to keeping joints flexible. Too little movement can lead to joint stiffness. Strong muscles help protect joints. But it’s important to talk to a doctor before beginning an exercise program. Managing weight, eating a nutritious diet and getting a good balance of rest and activity each day are important, too.
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