Reactive Arthritis: The Body's Reaction to an Infection

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Reactive arthritis is a form of arthritis, or joint inflammation, that occurs as a "reaction" to an infection elsewhere in the body. Inflammation is a characteristic reaction of tissues to injury or disease and is marked by swelling, redness, heat, and pain. Besides this joint inflammation, reactive arthritis is associated with two other symptoms: redness and inflammation of the eyes (conjunctivitis) and inflammation of the urinary tract (urethritis). These symptoms may occur alone, together, or not at all.

Reactive arthritis is also known as Reiter's syndrome. Doctors also refer to it as seronegative spondyloarthropathy. The seronegative spondyloarthropathies are a group of disorders that can cause inflammation throughout the body, especially in the spine. (Examples of other disorders in this group include psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, and the kind of arthritis that sometimes accompanies inflammatory bowel disease.)

In many patients, reactive arthritis is triggered by a venereal infection in the bladder, the urethra, or, in women, the vagina (the urogenital tract) that is often transmitted through sexual contact. This form of the disorder is sometimes called genitourinary or urogenital reactive arthritis. Another form of reactive arthritis is caused by an infection in the intestinal tract from eating food or handling substances that are contaminated with bacteria. This form of arthritis is sometimes called enteric or gastrointestinal reactive arthritis.

The symptoms of reactive arthritis usually last 3 to 12 months, although symptoms can return or develop into a long-term disease in a small percentage of people.

What Causes Reactive Arthritis?

Reactive arthritis typically begins about 1 to 3 weeks after infection. The bacterium most often associated with reactive arthritis is Chlamydia trachomatis, commonly known as chlamydia. It is usually acquired through sexual contact. Some evidence also shows that respiratory infections with Chlamydia pneumoniae may trigger reactive arthritis.

Infections in the digestive tract that may trigger reactive arthritis include Salmonella, Shigella, Yersinia, and Campylobacter. People may become infected with these bacteria after eating or handling improperly prepared food, such as meats that are not stored at the proper temperature.

Doctors do not know exactly why some people exposed to these bacteria develop reactive arthritis and others do not, but they have identified a genetic factor, human leukocyte antigen (HLA) B27, that increases a person's chance of developing reactive arthritis. Approximately 80 percent of people with reactive arthritis test positive for HLA-B27. However, inheriting the HLA-B27 gene does not necessarily mean you will get reactive arthritis. Eight percent of healthy people have the HLA-B27 gene, and only about one-fifth of them will develop reactive arthritis if they contract the triggering infections.

What are the Symptoms of Reactive Arthritis?

Reactive arthritis most typically results in inflammation of the urogenital tract, the joints, and the eyes. Less common symptoms are mouth ulcers and skin rashes. Any of these symptoms may be so mild that patients do not notice them. They usually come and go over a period of several weeks to several months.

Urogenital Tract Symptoms

Reactive arthritis often affects the urogenital tract, including the prostate or urethra in men and the urethra, uterus, or vagina in women. Men may notice an increased need to urinate, a burning sensation when urinating, and a fluid discharge from the penis. Some men with reactive arthritis develop prostatitis (inflammation of the prostate gland). Symptoms of prostatitis can include fever and chills, as well as an increased need to urinate and a burning sensation when urinating.

Women with reactive arthritis may develop problems in the urogenital tract, such as cervicitis (inflammation of the cervix) or urethritis (inflammation of the urethra), which can cause a burning sensation during urination. In addition, some women also develop salpingitis (inflammation of the fallopian tubes) or vulvovaginitis (inflammation of the vulva and vagina). These conditions may or may not cause any arthritic symptoms.

Joint Symptoms

The arthritis associated with reactive arthritis typically involves pain and swelling in the knees, ankles, and feet. Wrists, fingers, and other joints are affected less often. People with reactive arthritis commonly develop inflammation of the tendons (tendinitis) or at places where tendons attach to the bone (ethesitis). In many people with reactive arthritis, this results in heel pain or irritation of the Achilles tendon at the back of the ankle. Some people with reactive arthritis also develop heel spurs, which are bony growths in the heel that may cause chronic (long-lasting) foot pain. Approximately half of people with reactive arthritis report low-back and buttock pain.

Reactive arthritis also can cause spondylitis (inflammation of the vertebrae in the spinal column) or sacroiliitis (inflammation of the joints in the lower back that connect the spine to the pelvis). People with reactive arthritis who have the HLA-B27 gene are even more likely to develop spondylitis and/or sacroiliitis.

Eye Involvement

Conjunctivitis, an inflammation of the mucous membrane that covers the eyeball and eyelid, develops in approximately half of people with reactive arthritis. Some people may develop uveitis, which is an inflammation of the inner eye. Conjunctivitis and uveitis can cause redness of the eyes, eye pain and irritation, and blurred vision. Eye involvement typically occurs early in the course of reactive arthritis, and symptoms may come and go.

Other Symptoms

Between 20 and 40 percent of men with reactive arthritis develop small, shallow, painless sores (ulcers) on the end of the penis. A small percentage of men and women develop rashes or small, hard nodules on the soles of the feet and, less often, on the palms of their hands or elsewhere. In addition, some people with reactive arthritis develop mouth ulcers that come and go. In some cases, these ulcers are painless and go unnoticed.

Who Gets Reactive Arthritis?

Evidence shows that although men are nine times more likely than women to develop reactive arthritis due to venereally acquired infections, women and men are equally likely to develop reactive arthritis as a result of food-borne infections. Women with reactive arthritis often have milder symptoms than men.

Is Reactive Arthritis Contagious?

Reactive arthritis is not contagious; that is, a person with the disorder cannot pass the arthritis on to someone else. However, the bacteria that can trigger reactive arthritis can be passed from person to person.

How Is Reactive Arthritis Diagnosed?

Doctors sometimes find it difficult to diagnose reactive arthritis because there is no specific laboratory test to confirm that a person has it.

Blood Tests

A doctor may order a blood test to detect the genetic factor HLA-B27, but even if the result is positive, the presence of HLA-B27 does not always mean that a person has the disorder.

Doctors also may order a blood test to determine the erythrocyte sedimentation rate (sed rate), which is the rate at which red blood cells settle to the bottom of a test tube of blood. A high sed rate often indicates inflammation somewhere in the body. Typically, people with rheumatic diseases, including reactive arthritis, have an elevated sed rate.

Testing for Infection

The doctor also is likely to perform tests for infections that might be associated with reactive arthritis. Patients generally are tested for a Chlamydia infection because recent studies have shown that early treatment of Chlamydia-induced reactive arthritis may reduce the progression of the disease. The doctor may look for bacterial infections by testing cell samples taken from the patient's throat as well as the urethra in men or cervix in women. Urine and stool samples also may be tested. A sample of synovial fluid (the fluid that lubricates the joints) may be removed from the arthritic joint. Studies of synovial fluid can help the doctor rule out infection in the joint.

X-Rays

Doctors sometimes use x rays to help diagnose reactive arthritis and to rule out other causes of arthritis. X rays can detect some of the symptoms of reactive arthritis, including spondylitis, sacroiliitis, swelling of soft tissues, damage to cartilage or bone margins of the joint, and calcium deposits where the tendon attaches to the bone.

Treatments for Reactive Arthritis

A rheumatologist (a doctor specializing in arthritis) is the best type of doctor to manage the complete treatment plan. This doctor can coordinate treatments and monitor the side effects from the various medicines the patient may take.

Although there is no cure for reactive arthritis, some treatments relieve symptoms of the disorder. The doctor is likely to use one or more of the following treatments:

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

NSAIDs1 reduce joint inflammation and are commonly used to treat patients with reactive arthritis. Aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, and naproxen sodium are examples of NSAIDS. They are often the first type of medication used. All NSAIDs work similarly: by blocking substances called prostaglandins that contribute to inflammation and pain. However, each NSAID is a different chemical, and each has a slightly different effect on the body.

Some NSAIDS are available over the counter, while more than a dozen others, including a subclass called COX-2 inhibitors, are available only with a prescription.

All NSAIDS can have significant side effects, and for unknown reasons, some people seem to respond better to one NSAID than another. Any person taking NSAIDS regularly should be monitored by a doctor.

Corticosteroid injections

For people with severe joint inflammation, injections of corticosteroids directly into the affected joint may reduce inflammation. Doctors usually prescribe these injections only after trying unsuccessfully to control arthritis with NSAIDs.

Topical corticosteroids

These corticosteroids come in a cream or lotion and can be applied directly on the skin lesions, such as ulcers, associated with reactive arthritis. Topical corticosteroids reduce inflammation and promote healing.

Antibiotics

The doctor may prescribe antibiotics to eliminate the bacterial infection that triggered reactive arthritis. The specific antibiotic prescribed depends on the type of bacterial infection present. It is important to follow instructions about how much medicine to take and for how long; otherwise the infection may persist. Typically, an antibiotic is taken for 7 to 10 days or longer.

Some doctors may recommend a person with reactive arthritis take antibiotics for a long period of time (up to 3 months). Current research shows that in most cases, this practice is necessary.

Immunosuppressive medicines

A small percentage of patients with reactive arthritis have severe symptoms that cannot be controlled with any of the above treatments. For these people, medicine that suppresses the immune system, such as sulfasalazine or methotrexate, may be effective.

TNF inhibitors

Several relatively new treatments that suppress tumor necrosis factor (TNF), a protein involved in the body's inflammatory response, may be effective for reactive arthritis and other spondyloarthropathies. They include etanercept and infliximab. These treatments were first used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

Exercise

Exercise, when introduced gradually, may help improve joint function. In particular, strengthening and range-of-motion exercises will maintain or improve joint function. Strengthening exercises builds up the muscles around the joint to better support it. Muscle-tightening exercises that do not move any joints can be done even when a person has inflammation and pain. Range-of-motion exercises improve movement and flexibility and reduce stiffness in the affected joint. For patients with spine pain or inflammation, exercises to stretch and extend the back can be particularly helpful in preventing long-term disability. Aquatic exercise also may be helpful. Before beginning an exercise program, patients should talk to a health professional who can recommend appropriate exercises.


The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, one of the 27 Institutes and Centers of the National Institute of Health (NIH), supports research into the causes, treatment, and prevention of arthritis and musculoskeletal and skin diseases, the training of basic and clinical scientists to carry out this research, and the dissemination of information on research progress in these diseases.

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3 Comments

Is there any way to prevent arthritis.What are its early symptoms?I have been experiencing joint pain from 2 year by now?could it be the reason for arthritis?
It would be helpful if the Arthritis Foundation would put out more information on this pelvic arthritis. Will one eventually need a wheelchair? Can one use crutches in times of painful inflammation to get the pressure off the pelvic bones?