Hepatitis C is an infection that primarily affects the liver. It also can cause problems elsewhere in the body, such as joint and muscle pain. Hepatitis C is usually caused by a virus and is transmitted when you come in contact with the blood of someone with the hepatitis C virus. Unfortunately, obvious symptoms don’t always appear until the infection has been in the body for a long time.

Autoimmune Response

If you have hepatitis C, you may also suffer inflammatory joint diseases. They can be caused by wear and tear, resulting in osteoarthritis (OA). Or these conditions can be the result of autoimmune diseases.

An autoimmune disease results when the immune system attacks healthy cells and tissue. Pain and stiffness are early signs of inflammation caused by the body’s autoimmune response to the hepatitis C virus.

In order to find out if your joint pain is caused by a hepatitis C virus, your doctor will first have to find out if you have the virus. Blood tests can determine if you have hepatitis C. The next step is coordinating treatment for both the virus and the related joint problems.

Treating Hepatitis C and Joint Pain

About 75 percent of patients who faithfully follow their treatment plans can be cured of hepatitis C. A combination of drugs is used to treat hepatitis C. The medications most often used include interferon and antiviral drugs, such as ribavirin. Protease inhibitors, a newer drug type, also may form part of the treatment plan. Protease inhibitors may help reduce treatment time, which can be lengthy and difficult with hepatitis C.  

A nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as ibuprofren (Advil), may be enough to relieve joint pain symptoms. Prescription medications for treating hepatitis C-related joint inflammation are also among the drugs prescribed to rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patients. These include anti-necrosis factor (anti-TNF) drugs, which seem to be safe for hepatitis C patients.

However, some RA drugs may cause side effects, including liver damage. The American College of Rheumatology urges patients to make sure their liver doctors (hepatologists or other types of internists) coordinate treatment plans with their rheumatologists (joint pain specialists).

Non-Medication Treatments

Some rheumatic diseases may be treated without drugs. For example, strengthening the muscles around an affected joint can help stabilize it. Physical therapy can improve your range of motion. Other exercises that improve your overall health may help you cope better with complications from hepatitis C. These exercises include aerobics, brisk walking, swimming, and biking. Before you start an exercise routine, check with your doctor to find out if you need to take any special precautions.

Other Complications

In addition to liver damage and joint pain, jaundice and other complications can result from hepatitis C. Jaundice is a yellowing of the skin and of the white part of the eye. This is sometimes the sign people notice that prompts them to get tested for hepatitis C. Other symptoms that are potential signs of hepatitis C include:

  • dark urine
  • grey stools
  • nausea
  • fever
  • fatigue

Prevention and Screening

Sexual contact with someone who has hepatitis C may result in the transmission of the disease. So can exposure to needles and other objects that have come into contact with the blood of a hepatitis C patient.

Blood transfusions prior to 1992 are also suspected in the transmission of the virus. Anyone who had a transfusion before that time should be screened for hepatitis C. You should also be screened if you have used needles to take illegal drugs, gotten a tattoo, or worked in a healthcare position in which you were exposed to blood samples.

Hepatitis C can be a life-threatening disease, but it is treatable. The key is to find out your risk (or whether you have the disease) before joint pain and other problems set in. You should take steps to lower your risk of exposure to the hepatitis C virus, and get screened if you’re in a high-risk group. If you are diagnosed, follow your treatment plan to the letter.