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Reactive arthritis

Reactive arthritis is joint pain and swelling triggered by an infection in another part of your body — most often your intestines, genitals or urinary tract.

Your knees and the joints of your ankles and feet are the usual targets of reactive arthritis. Inflammation also may affect your eyes, skin and urethra when you have reactive arthritis.

Although reactive arthritis is sometimes called Reiter's syndrome, Reiter's is actually a specific type of reactive arthritis. In Reiter's, inflammation typically affects the eyes and urethra, as well as your joints.

Reactive arthritis isn't common. For most people, signs and symptoms of reactive arthritis come and go, eventually disappearing within 12 months.

Symptoms Risk factors Causes Prevention

The signs and symptoms of reactive arthritis generally start one to three weeks after exposure to a triggering infection. They may include:

  • Pain and stiffness. The joint pain associated with reactive arthritis most commonly occurs in your knees, ankles and feet. You also might experience pain in your heels, low back or buttocks.
  • Eye inflammation. Many people who have reactive arthritis also develop eye inflammation (conjunctivitis).
  • Urinary problems. Increased frequency and discomfort during urination may occur, as can inflammation of the prostate gland or cervix.
  • Swollen toes or fingers. In some cases, your toes or fingers might become so swollen that they resemble sausages.

Certain factors increase your risk of reactive arthritis:

  • Your age. Reactive arthritis occurs most frequently in people 20 to 40 years old.
  • Your sex. Women and men are equally likely to develop reactive arthritis in reaction to foodborne infections. However, men are more likely than are women to develop reactive arthritis in response to sexually transmitted bacteria.
  • Hereditary factors. A specific genetic marker has been linked to reactive arthritis. But many people who have this marker never develop reactive arthritis.

Reactive arthritis develops in reaction to an infection in another part of your body, often in your intestines, genitals or urinary tract. You may not be aware of the triggering infection because it may cause only mild symptoms or none at all.

Numerous bacteria can cause reactive arthritis. The most common ones include:

  • Chlamydia
  • Salmonella
  • Shigella
  • Yersinia
  • Campylobacter

Reactive arthritis isn't contagious. However, the bacteria that cause it can be transmitted sexually or in contaminated food. But only a few of the people who are exposed to these bacteria develop reactive arthritis.

Genetic factors appear to play a role in whether you're likely to develop reactive arthritis. Though you can't change your genetic makeup, you can reduce your exposure to the bacteria that may lead to reactive arthritis.

Make sure your food is stored at proper temperatures and is cooked properly. These steps can help you avoid the many foodborne bacteria that can cause reactive arthritis, including salmonella, shigella, yersinia and campylobacter. Some sexually transmitted infections can trigger reactive arthritis. Using condoms may lower your risk.

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