Reactive Arthritis (Reiter's Syndrome)

Written by Amber Erickson Gabbey | Published on August 20, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

Reiter’s syndrome

What Is Reiter’s Syndrome?

Reiter’s syndrome, also known as reactive arthritis or post-infectious arthritis, produces inflammation, swelling, and pain in the joints due to infection elsewhere in the body. Other parts of the body may also be affected by pain or lesions. This condition and other types of reactive arthritis are uncommon.

What Causes Reiter’s Syndrome?

The exact cause of this condition is unknown, but it most commonly occurs because of an infection, such as chlamydia or salmonella. Reiter’s syndrome is not contagious, but the underlying cause is often an infection that can be spread through sexual contact or unsanitary food handling.

Risk factors that make you more susceptible include:

  • gender (it is more common in men)
  • age (it is most common in adolescents and adults under 40)
  • genetics (a particular defective gene may be responsible)

Symptoms of Reiter’s Syndrome

The primary symptoms of Reiter’s syndrome involve the urinary system, muscles, joints, skin, and eyes. Symptoms appear at different times. For example, urinary symptoms appear within days of the infection. Other symptoms, including arthritic pain, may not develop until weeks later.

Specific symptoms include:

  • pain in the heel, Achilles tendon, or lower back
  • swelling in the toes and fingers
  • joint pain, especially in the hip, knee, or ankle
  • eye issues (pain, redness, or discharge)
  • skin lesions on the palms, soles of the feet, or genitals
  • mouth ulcers
  • difficulty urinating (pain, frequent urination, burning while urinating)
  • pain in the penis
  • urethral discharge

Diagnosing Reiter’s Syndrome

To diagnose this condition, your doctor will do an examination based on your symptoms. Skin lesions will be assessed if you have them. Your doctor may also do X-rays, analyses of your urine, or other tests to help determine the location of your underlying infection. A DNA test can also check for the gene associated with Reiter’s syndrome.

Diagnosis may be difficult or delayed, however, because the symptoms often occur at different times.

Preventing Reiter’s Syndrome

To reduce your risk of developing this condition, prevent sexually transmitted diseases by using protection during sexual intercourse. Prevent gastrointestinal infections by washing your hands when handling food.

Treating Reiter’s Syndrome

Treatment focuses on getting rid of the infection, pain, and other symptoms. There is no way to cure Reiter’s syndrome. Instead, treatment focuses on the underlying infection.

Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics or pain relievers to help get rid of the infection and pain. In cases of severe joint pain, you may have corticosteroids (a medication that reduces inflammation) injected into the joint. For some people, physical therapy relieves joint pain and increases range of motion.

Outlook for Reiter’s Syndrome

The prognosis for Reiter’s syndrome varies. Some people will recover completely in a few weeks or a few months. However, recurrence is likely. For some, the condition will become chronic.

In rare cases, Reiter’s syndrome can lead to disease in the heart valves, heart arrhythmias (changes in heart rhythm), or swelling in the eye.

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