Reactive Arthritis

What is Reactive Arthritis?

Reactive Arthritis (ReA) is characterized by swelling and pain in the joints, skin, genital region, mucous membranes, eyes and/or bladder. The feet, ankles and knees are most often affected. It is a physical response to specific types of bacterial infections including chlamydia (a sexually transmitted disease) and foodborne bacteria that typically results in dysentery.

It is also thought to be at least partially genetic since it does not afflict everyone with these types of bacterial infections.

What are the Symptoms of Reactive Arthritis?

Reactive arthritis typically appears between one and four weeks after an infection that triggers the condition. Symptoms may include:

  • Joint pain and rigidity
  • Pink eye
  • Prostate or cervical inflammation
  • Painful and/or frequent urination
  • Swollen toes and fingers

Reactive Arthritis Causes

Reactive arthritis is caused by a reaction in the body to certain bacterial infections that are quite common. Chlamydia, Salmonella, Shigella, Yersinia, Campylobacter and Clostridium difficile have all been identified as bacteria leading to the development of reactive arthritis. Other types of bacteria may also be responsible.

Most of these bacteria are responsible for either urinary or intestinal infections. Chlamydia is a sexually transmitted bacteria affecting the urinary system. Many people do not even know that they are infected with Chlamydia until it manifests elsewhere in the body.

Certain individuals with these bacteria will develop an immune response in the body that will often lead to reactive arthritis. Traditional arthritis symptoms will occur along with symptoms in the skin.

Doctors are not completely sure why only some people who are infected with the responsible bacteria develop reactive arthritis. There does seem to be a relationship with having a gene named HLA-B27 and being susceptible to reactive arthritis. Doctors remain uncertain as to why men are affected at a much greater rate than women.

How is Reactive Arthritis Treated?

There are no curative treatments for reactive arthritis, but symptoms and underlying infections can be treated. Treatments may include:

  • Antibiotics to treat an underlying infection
  • Prescription anti-inflammatory medication for painful and swollen joints
  • Corticosteroid injections to relieve swelling and improve mobility
  • Rheumatoid arthritis medication
  • Physical therapy

ReA often recurs, and it can last from three months to a year. It is also severe in up to 20% of those afflicted, and it can result in chronic spondylitis or arthritis. Sexual abstinence or condom use and proper food handling and storage are effective ways to avoid underlying causes of the condition.

Reactive Arthritis Prevention

Several of the bacteria responsible for reactive arthritis are food-borne bacteria that cause intestinal infections. For this reason, prevention of food-borne illness will prevent reactive arthritis.

When preparing or handling food, safety measures should be practiced. Food preparation surfaces should be clean, and all foods should be washed and cooked to the proper temperatures. Hands need to be washed before and after preparing food and before eating.

One of the bacteria associated with the development of reactive arthritis is sexually transmitted. Practicing safe sex and using proper protection while having sex will help to eliminate the transfer of this bacteria.

If a patient is undergoing antibiotic therapy for one of the bacteria responsible for reactive arthritis, all of the antibiotic course needs to be finished. Complete elimination of responsible bacteria is necessary to totally prevent the development of reactive arthritis.

Last Reviewed:
October 09, 2016
Last Updated:
December 05, 2017