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What Is An Arthritis Flare and What To Do When You Have One?
If you’re a chronic pain sufferer, you know that there are good days. These are days when you feel almost normal; when you’re barely thinking about your joints and you have the energy to go about your daily routine without feeling like you’re going to pass out from exhaustion or pain.
You feel so great you end up doing just a little bit more than your body can handle. Maybe you agree to have a couple of drinks with colleagues after work, or you do a couple of extra sets at the gym. It could even be as simple as you staying up a few hours later than usual catching up on your favorite show. You’re feeling so good you’ve almost forgotten that this isn’t your normal—until the next day when it all catches up with you.
Unfortunately, the good days are almost inevitably followed by a bad day if you’re not careful. And these periods of increased disease activity are what chronic pain sufferers know all too well as flares.
Arthritis flares (or flares caused by any chronic illness for that matter) are not pleasant. We asked the Dr. Arthritis Patient Network how they deal with it and the general answer is that you learn to ride it out until passes. But they also offered this key piece of wisdom: learn to recognize the early signs of a flare and identify triggers.
What Are the Early Symptoms of An Arthritis Flare?
For osteoarthritis (OA), joint pain is usually prompted by weather and pressure changes. For autoimmune arthritis sufferers, joint pain and stiffness are usually accompanied by swelling. An increased level of pain, or the onset of joint swelling is usually a sign of an oncoming flare.
Fatigue is very common among autoimmune arthritis sufferers. Internal inflammation can do a number on energy levels. Similarly, dealing with constant joint pain caused by the wear and tear of OA can be exhausting. Either way, if you’re feeling a little more depleted than normal; if you find yourself needing more breaks and naptimes to get through the day, these could be signs of a flare looming around the corner.
This is more common for autoimmune arthritis sufferers. Systemic symptoms such as low-grade fevers are usually associated with joint swelling, a primary symptom of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), psoriatic arthritis (PsA), or other similar autoimmune joint conditions.
What Could Cause An Arthritis Flare?
On good days, you tend to take on more than your body can handle, so you end up overdoing it. OA patients are likely to flare after they overexert affected joints. The unexpected activity adds too much pressure on the joints and surrounding tissues that can cause pain.
It’s the same for inflammatory arthritis patients. The trouble is that it’s harder to tell when you’re pushing their joints out of your comfort zone. While OA patients are likely to immediately feel when they’ve done too much; inflammatory arthritis patients won’t necessarily feel the swelling and pain until the next day.
This is the same for both inflammatory and wear and tear arthritis sufferers. Pressure changes, shifting weather conditions, cold weather, and rising humidity can often make joint pain worse. While there’s little scientific evidence to prove that the weather directly affects arthritic joints, there’s overwhelming evidence to prove otherwise.
Common infections that affect the immune system are known arthritis flare triggers. Medications could also be to blame. For example, tapering off corticosteroids too quickly can send autoimmune arthritis patients into a flare. Biologics, known for making patients more vulnerable to infection, can also be a reason. Missing your medication schedule can also lead to a flare.
While the exact mechanism of how stress can affect arthritis is currently unknown, there is no doubt that stress can prompt a flare.
Like the weather, there are very few studies to definitively prove that food can cause increased disease activity or affect arthritis joints. However, anecdotal evidence shows that if a patient sees a direct relationship between specific foods and their symptoms, it’s worth exploring so you can minimize flares triggered by this specific food.
What To Do If You’re Flaring
Consult Your Doctor
Flares can last for a few days to several weeks. If you think you’re going through one and feel like it hasn’t improved, we always think it’s best to seek proper medical attention from a trusted doctor. They are likely to ask and track how you’re currently feeling, possibly order some imaging or get bloodwork done to see what’s going on. They can also check your current medications and see if anything needs to be changed or adjusted to manage your flare.
This is more common for inflammatory arthritis patients. Most doctors order blood tests to check key if inflammatory markers such as ESR or CRP are elevated. If they spike, you’re likely going through a flare. Take note however that not all inflammatory arthritis sufferers show the same results. There are some instances when flares don’t show up even on these tests.
In cases where blood tests aren’t able to determine your disease activity, physical tests are done simultaneously. A doctor will examine your joints and look for tender and swollen areas. If you have more than you did during your last visit, then it’s likely that you’re going through a flare.
When flares occur you have to give yourself time to rest and heal. You’re already feeling fatigued and exhausted, don’t keep pushing your body to the limit.
Rest, curl up on the couch or in bed and allow yourself to unwind—it’s everyone’s go-to flare fighter.
Recognize what stress triggers likely caused your flare and distance yourself from it. Try meditation as a way to unwind. Deep breathing and journaling are also good ways to relax. Try it out and see what works for you.
Use Arthritis Aids & Tools
There are a lot of non-invasive ways you can try to help manage your symptoms better. For example, arthritis gloves, compression sleeves as well as supports and braces can help manage pain and aid in mobility during flares. It also helps relieve pressure on flaring joints.
Hot or cold packs are also very useful. Warming joints can help minimize pain. Try heated mittens, Epsom salt soaks, or hot packs. Cold therapy by applying cold packs on the other hand can lower inflammation.
Be very gentle and only do this if it’s something that your joints can currently handle. Light, gentle movement can be very helpful physically and mentally if you’re in a flare. Understandably, not everyone can do this. Again, don’t force yourself.