Reactive Arthritis

Overview

What is reactive arthritis?

Reactive arthritis is a rare form of arthritis caused by a bacterial infection that usually affects your urinary or gastrointestinal tract, causing painful inflammation in your lower back, joints and eyes.

Reactive arthritis symptoms can be mild or become more severe over time. Symptoms last between three and 12 months and can come and go during that time.

Who does reactive arthritis affect?

Reactive arthritis is most often found in men ages 30 to 50, but women can get it too. Men are nine times more likely than women to get reactive arthritis through sexual contact. Women are more likely to get reactive arthritis from food poisoning.

How does reactive arthritis affect my body?

Reactive arthritis affects people in different ways. You might have one or all of the following problems:

How common is reactive arthritis?

Reactive arthritis is relatively rare, affecting five out of every 100,000 people in the United States.

Symptoms and Causes

What causes reactive arthritis?

Researchers think reactive arthritis is an autoimmune disorder. Autoimmune disorders happen when your body sets out to attack bacteria or virus and hits healthy tissue by mistake. Reactive arthritis typically follows infections caused by these bacteria:

Will I develop reactive arthritis if I have food poisoning or chlamydia?

Most people have these infections without developing reactive arthritis. Researchers aren’t sure why some people get reactive arthritis while others don’t. Some people carry a gene called HLA B27 (human leukocyte antigen) that increases their chance of developing reactive arthritis.

What are the symptoms of reactive arthritis?

Reactive arthritis is your body’s reaction to a bacterial infection. Reactive arthritis symptoms develop about 10 days after your bacterial infection. You might have one or more of these symptoms:

  • Joint pain, stiffness and swelling in your lower back, hips, knees, ankles, feet and fingers.
  • Men might urinate more often and have a burning feeling when they urinate.
  • Women might have a burning feeling when they urinate.
  • Conjunctivitis (pink eye).
  • Diarrhea and abdominal pain.
  • Sores on your palms, the soles of your feet or your penis.

Is reactive arthritis contagious?

Reactive arthritis isn’t contagious, but the bacterial infections that cause reactive arthritis are.

Diagnosis and Tests

How is reactive arthritis diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will

  • Do a physical examination.
  • Ask about your medical history, including any recent illnesses or infections.
  • Tests for arthritis and infections.

What tests are done to diagnose reactive arthritis?

Your provider might use the following tests:

Management and Treatment

How is reactive arthritis treated?

Reactive arthritis treatment relieves your symptoms and treats your underlying bacterial infection. Your treatment might change over time if you develop new symptoms or your current treatment isn’t relieving your symptoms.

What medications are used for reactive arthritis?

Your provider will use several medications to relieve your symptoms and treat your infection. Some medications that might be used are:

Does reactive arthritis go away?

Reactive arthritis symptoms usually go away within three to six months after you start treatment. But it can become a chronic illness for 20% of people who have the condition.

Does reactive arthritis come and go?

Reactive arthritis symptoms might come and go. You might not have symptoms for weeks or months at a time.

Prevention

How can I reduce my risk of reactive arthritis?

You can reduce your risk of reactive arthritis by:

  • Practicing safe sex to avoid sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Practicing food safety by making sure food is safely stored, prepared and served.

Outlook / Prognosis

What is the outlook for reactive arthritis?

Most people with reactive arthritis recover completely and resume their daily routine about three to six months after starting treatment.

How long do reactive arthritis symptoms last?

You might have mild reactive arthritis symptoms for up to a year. Your provider can help you manage these long-term symptoms so you’re able to get back to your normal routine while you recover.

Can reactive arthritis come back?

Studies show that 15 to 50% of people who have reactive arthritis develop symptoms again. These recurring symptoms might be signs of new bacterial infections. Talk to your healthcare provider about preventing new infections.

Living With

How do I take care of myself?

You can take care yourself by avoiding activities that might cause new bacterial infections:

  • Practice safe sex.
  • Practice food safety.

What can I do to help my recovery?

Here are some positive steps you can take as you recover:

  • Stay active. Exercise can help your joints stay flexible and strengthen the muscles that support your joints.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Eat a healthy diet.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

Reactive arthritis symptoms might not appear at the same time. Keep track of your symptoms and contact your provider if your existing symptoms get worse or you notice new symptoms.

What questions should I ask my doctor?

  • How did I get reactive arthritis?
  • When will I feel better?
  • Will my reactive arthritis come back?
  • I have genes that make me more likely to have reactive arthritis. Is there anything I can do to avoid getting it?

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the difference between reactive arthritis and Adult-Onset Still’s disease?

Reactive arthritis and Adult-Onset Still’s disease (AOSD) have similar symptoms and causes. Unlike AOSD, researchers have pinpointed the bacteria that cause reactive arthritis.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Reactive arthritis is a painful condition caused by a bacterial infection. It can come and go over several months. Your healthcare provider will help you treat the infection and manage your symptoms. Keep track of your symptoms and contact your provider if they get worse or you have new ones. Talk to your provider about what to expect throughout your recovery and what you can do to recover more quickly.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/06/2021.

References

  • Arthritis Foundation. Reactive Arthritis. (https://www.arthritis.org/diseases/reactive-arthritis) Accessed 10/1/2021.
  • Current Clinical Microbiology Report. Reactive Arthritis. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7519381/#!po=12.5000) Accessed 10/1/2021.
  • National Organization for Rare Disorders. Reactive Arthritis. (https://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/reactive-arthritis/) Accessed 10/1/2021.
  • StatPearls. Reactive Arthritis. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499831/) Accessed 10/1/2021.

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