Reiter's syndrome (RS), which is also known as arthritis urethritica, venereal arthritis, reactive arthritis, and polyarteritis enterica, is a form of arthritis that affects the eyes, urethra, and skin, as well as the joints. It was first described by Hans Reiter, a German physician, during World War I.
Reiter's syndrome is marked by a cluster of symptoms in different organ systems of the body that may or may not appear simultaneously. The disease may be acute or chronic, with spontaneous remissions or recurrences.
RS primarily affects sexually active males between ages 20-40, particularly males who are HIV positive. Most women and children who develop RS acquire the disease in its intestinal form.
Causes and symptoms
The cause of Reiter's syndrome was unknown as of early 1998, but scientists think the disease results from a combination of genetic vulnerability and various disease agents. Over 80% of Caucasian patients and 50-60% of African Americans test positive for HLA-B27, which suggests that the disease has a genetic component. In sexually active males, most cases of RS follow infection with Chlamydia trachomatis or Ureaplasma urealyticum. Other patients develop the symptoms following gastrointestinal infection with Shigella, Salmonella, Yersinia, or Campylobacter bacteria.
The initial symptoms of RS are inflammation either of the urethra or the intestines, followed by acute arthritis four to 28 days later. The arthritis usually affects the fingers, toes, and weight-bearing joints in the legs. Other symptoms include:
- inflammation of the urethra, with painful urination and a discharge from the penis
- mouth ulcers
- inflammation of the eye
- keratoderma blennorrhagica, these are patches of scaly skin on the palms, soles, trunk, or scalp of RS patients
Diagnosis of Reiter's syndrome can be complicated by the fact that different symptoms often occur several weeks apart. The patient does not usually draw a connection between the arthritis and previous sexual activity. The doctor is likely to consider Reiter's syndrome when the patient's arthritis occurs together with or shortly following inflammation of the eye and the genitourinary tract lasting a month or longer.
There is no specific test for diagnosing RS, but the physician may have the urethral discharge cultured to rule out gonorrhea. Blood tests of RS patients are typically positive for the HLA-B27 genetic marker, with an elevated white blood cell (WBC) count and an increased sedimentation rate of red blood cells. The patient may also be mildly anemic.
X rays do not usually reveal any abnormalities unless the patient has had recurrent episodes of the disease. Joints that have been repeatedly inflamed may show eroded areas, signs of osteoporosis, or bony spurs when x rayed.
There is no specific treatment for RS. Joint inflammation is usually treated with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs.) Skin eruptions and eye inflammation can be treated with corticosteroids. Gold treatments may be given for eroded bone.
Patients with chronic arthritis are also given physical therapy and advised to exercise regularly.
The prognosis varies. Most patients recover in three to four months, but about 50% have recurrences for several years. Some patients develop complications that include inflammation of the heart muscle, stiffening inflammation of the vertebrae, glaucoma, eventual blindness, deformities of the feet, or accumulation of fluid in the lungs.
In males, Reiter's syndrome can be prevented by sexual abstinence or the use of condoms.
Berktow, Robert, editor. "Musculoskeletal and Connective Tissue Disorders: Reiter's Syndrome (RS)." In The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy. 16th ed. Rahway, NJ: Merck Research Laboratories, 1992.
Hellman, David B. "Arthritis & Musculoskeletal Disorders." In Current Medical Diagnosis and Treatment, 1998, edited by Stephen McPhee, et al., 37th ed. Stamford: Appleton & Lange, 1997.
Acute— Having a sudden onset and lasting a short time.
Chronic— Of long duration.
Keratoderma blennorrhagica— The medical name for the patches of scaly skin that occur on the arms, legs, and trunk of RS patients.
Reactive arthritis— Another name for Reiter's syndrome.