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Quick Facts

Reactive Arthritis


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Apr 2020| Content last modified Apr 2020
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Arthritis is a group of diseases that makes your joints hurt, swell up, and turn red. There are many different types of arthritis.

What is reactive arthritis?

Reactive arthritis is a type of arthritis that develops as a reaction to an infection somewhere in your body. Reactive arthritis is different from an actual infection inside a joint.

  • Symptoms include joint pain and swelling

  • You may also have swollen tendons, back pain, a rash, or red eyes

  • Symptoms develop within a few days or weeks after you have an infection in your intestines (gastroenteritis) or a sexually transmitted disease (STD)

  • Doctors can usually tell if you have reactive arthritis from your symptoms and an exam

  • Medicines may help treat your symptoms

In most people, reactive arthritis disappears in 3 or 4 months. Half of people have symptoms that come and go over several years. The joints and spine may become deformed if symptoms don't go away or come back regularly. A few people who have reactive arthritis become permanently disabled.

What causes reactive arthritis?

Two types of infection cause most reactive arthritis:

But most people who have these infections don’t get reactive arthritis. A specific gene that runs in families may cause some people to get reactive arthritis while others don't.

What are the symptoms of reactive arthritis?

The most common symptoms are:

  • Pain, swelling, redness, and warmth of one or more joints, usually in your legs

  • Pain and swelling of the ligaments and tendons around a joint

  • Back pain, if the disease is severe

Along with the joint pain, you may feel generally sick with symptoms like:

  • Mild fever

  • Feeling tired and run down

  • No appetite and losing weight

You might also have problems that don't involve your joints. For example, you may have:

  • Red, irritated eyes and sometimes trouble seeing (uveitis)

  • Sores in your mouth

  • A hard, thick rash on your skin, especially on your palms and soles and around your nails

Sometimes the infection that caused the reactive arthritis hasn't gone away. You may still have:

  • Pain when you pee or a discharge from your vagina or penis if you have an STD

  • Diarrhea, if you have an infection in your intestines

How can doctors tell if I have reactive arthritis?

Doctors can tell if you have reactive arthritis based on your symptoms and by doing an exam. Doctors may also do:

  • X-rays to see how damaged your joints are

  • Tests to rule out other diseases that can cause arthritis

  • Sometimes, tests to look at fluid from a swollen joint

If you have symptoms of an intestinal infection or an STD, doctors will test you for those infections.

How do doctors treat reactive arthritis?

Doctors treat the infection that led to the reactive arthritis if it hasn't already gone away.

Doctors may prescribe medicines to help relieve joint pain and other symptoms, including:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to relieve joint pain and swelling

  • Corticosteroid injections into swollen joints

  • Sometimes, medicines that work on your immune system to lessen inflammation

Physical therapy may help to keep joints loose.

Eye and skin problems related to reactive arthritis don't usually need to be treated.

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