Reactive arthritis, formerly called Reiter’s syndrome, is a type of arthritis that occurs as a ‘reaction’ to a bacterial infection in another part of your body., particularly a bowel or genital tract infection.
Normally when you have an infection, your immune system steps in to fight the foreign body (e.g. bacteria, virus). However in reactive arthritis, this immune system activity continues after the infection has been cleared. This leads to painful swelling of your joints, although your joints themselves are not infected.
The joints of your knees, feet and ankles are most commonly affected by reactive arthritis.
Reactive arthritis can occur at any age, however it tends to affect people (mostly men) aged between 20 and 50 years.
Most people with reactive arthritis will find that their condition disappears completely within 6-12 months. However for some people, symptoms may linger for a longer period of time or may come back.
Reactive arthritis isn’t contagious, however the bacteria that has caused the condition can be passed on to others, through sexual activity and contaminated food.
The symptoms of reactive arthritis develop some weeks after the infection, and may include:
Bacterial infections that are known to cause reactive arthritis include:
Most people who catch one of these bacterial infections don’t develop reactive arthritis. We don’t know why some people develop arthritis and others don’t.
If you have a genetic marker known as HLA-B27 you are more likely to develop reactive arthritis. Having the HLA-B27 gene could also make you more likely to have further episodes in the future.
However many other people have this marker and never develop reactive arthritis. So the reason some develop reactive arthritis and others don’t is still a mystery.
There’s no specific test for diagnosing reactive arthritis, so your doctor will use a number of different exams and tests including:
Medical care aims to manage the symptoms until you get better, and may include:
Uveitis requires specialist treatment. If you develop uveitis, your doctor may refer you to an ophthalmologist for treatment. Your doctor may also refer you to a rheumatologist if needed.
As well as following the treatment plan your healthcare team has given you, there are many things you can do to manage your reactive arthritis:
Become more informed about your condition. Knowing as much as possible about your condition means that you can make informed decisions about your healthcare and play an active role in the management of your condition.
Work with your healthcare team – keep them up-to-date with how things are going, including changes in symptoms, any issues with your medications, if you’re having difficulties staying active or at work, if you’re feeling anxious or worried.
Stay physically active – regular physical activity has lots of health benefits. It can also help you manage the symptoms of your condition. When you start exercising regularly you should notice an improvement in your pain levels, the quality of your sleep, increase in energy levels and improvements in your overall strength and fitness.
Eat well – eating a balanced diet can help provide you with better energy levels, help to maintain your weight, and give you a greater sense of wellbeing.
Learn ways to manage pain – this may include heat or cold packs to ease muscular aches and joint pain, relaxation techniques, gentle exercise and medications for short term pain relief.
Use relaxation strategies – there’s a wide range of relaxation techniques you can try, from listening to your favourite music, deep breathing, going for a walk, progressive muscle relaxation and more. Try out several different strategies to find things that work best for you.
Stay at work – it’s good for your health and wellbeing. Talk to your doctor or allied healthcare professionals about ways to help you to get back to or stay at work.
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This information has been produced in consultation with and approved by: Musculoskeletal Australia.