What is it?
Reactive arthritis, formerly known as Reiter’s syndrome, is a condition that causes inflammation (redness and swelling) in various places in the body. It usually develops following an infection, and in most cases clears up in a few months without causing long-term problems.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of reactive arthritis usually develop within four weeks of an infection. In most cases, reactive arthritis follows a sexually transmitted infection (STI) such as chlamydia, or a bowel infection such as food poisoning. The three parts of the body most commonly affected by reactive arthritis are the:
- Joints and tendons.
- Urinary system.
However, most people won’t experience problems in all of these areas.
Joints and tendons
Reactive arthritis usually involves inflammation of the joints (arthritis) and tendons, which can cause:
- Joint pain, tenderness and swelling – usually in weight-bearing joints such as your knees, feet and ankles.
- Lower back and buttock pain.
- Swelling of your fingers and toes.
- Joint stiffness – particularly in the morning.
See your GP if you have any swollen and painful joints, especially if you have recently had diarrhoea or problems passing urine.
The urinary system
Reactive arthritis can sometimes also involve inflammation of the urethra (non-gonococcal urethritis), which is the tube that carries urine out of the body.
Symptoms of urethritis can include:
- Pain or a burning sensation when you pee.
- Urinating more often than usual.
- Having a sudden urge to pee.
- A discharge of fluid from the penis or vagina.
- Blood in your urine (less commonly).
Reactive arthritis may occasionally involve inflammation of the eyes (conjunctivitis). Symptoms of conjunctivitis can include:
- Red eyes.
- Watery eyes.
- Eye pain.
- Swollen eyelids.
In rare cases, a type of uveitis and iritis can develop. Iritis can cause the eyes to become painful, red and sensitive to light. See your doctor or an eye specialist as soon as possible if you have these symptoms.
Reactive arthritis can also cause symptoms, including:
- Feeling unusually tired.
- A high temperature (fever).
- Weight loss.
- Mouth ulcers.
- Painless white patches inside your mouth.
- A rash.
- Thick and crumbly nails.
- Abdominal (tummy) pain.
- Bouts of diarrhoea.
What to expect?
If you are diagnosed with reactive arthritis, you can consider discussing the following subjects with your doctor:
- Lab tests or imaging studies are often required to rule out other more serious conditions. Is this the case for you as well?
- What treatment options do you have for your condition?
- A healthy diet, smoking cessation and an active lifestyle can improve overall health and wellbeing. Which changes can you make in your lifestyle?
In addition to treatment by your doctor you can try the following things:
- Painkillers might help in relieving pain and inflammation.
- Get plenty of rest.
- Use ice packs and heat pads to reduce joint pain and swelling. Wrap them in a clean towel before putting them against your skin.
- When your symptoms start improving, you should begin to do exercises to stretch and strengthen the affected muscles, and improve the range of movement in your affected joints.
- There is a risk you could develop reactive arthritis again if you get another infection. The best way to avoid this is by protecting yourself against STIs and bowel infections and ensuring good standards of hygiene when preparing and storing food can help to prevent bowel infections.