Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic condition that can cause pain, inflammation, and stiffness in the joints.
While there is no cure, there are ways to manage symptoms and reduce the frequency and severity of rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups.
In this blog post, we’ll explore the causes and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups, with tips and strategies for managing them. Whether experiencing your first flare-up or having lived with RA for years, this post will provide valuable insights and advice.
What is rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic autoimmune disorder that primarily affects the body’s smaller joints.
The body’s immune system attacks the synovial membrane, a thin layer of tissue that lines the joints, and causes inflammation and damage to the joint tissues.
This attack leads to pain, swelling, stiffness, and sometimes, loss of function in the affected joints.
The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis can vary in severity and may come and go over time. In some cases, RA can lead to permanent joint deformity and disability.
The cause of RA is not fully known, but it is believed to involve a combination of genetic and environmental factors. There is no cure for RA, making it a chronic condition. Still, treatments such as medication, physical therapy, and lifestyle changes can help manage symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.
What are rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups?
Rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups occur when the symptoms of RA worsen or new symptoms appear.
Flare-ups can vary in intensity and duration and can be triggered by various factors, such as stress, infections, changes in medication, or physical activity.
Flare-ups can come with increased pain, swelling, stiffness, fatigue, and reduced range of motion in the affected joints. You might find it challenging to perform daily activities such as dressing, cooking, or driving.
Managing flare-ups is an essential part of living with RA, and it involves identifying triggers and developing a personalized management plan.
This plan may include adjusting medication dosages, taking additional medications, resting and pacing activities, applying heat or cold therapy, practicing stress-management techniques, and seeking additional support from healthcare professionals or support groups.
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Triggers of rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups
There are specific triggers of rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups, which vary from person to person in both signs and severity.
Here are some of the most common triggers of rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups:
1. Physical overexertion or injury
Physical overexertion or injury can trigger a rheumatoid arthritis flare-up by causing additional stress on your inflamed joints. Overusing or misusing your joints can increase pain, stiffness, and swelling, worsening RA symptoms.
You are putting yourself at risk when you lift heavy objects, perform repetitive motions, or engage in high-impact activities.
2. Emotional stress
Emotional stress can also trigger RA flare-ups. Stress can cause the body to release certain hormones and chemicals, contributing to inflammation and immune system dysfunction, thereby increasing your symptoms.
You need to learn how to manage stress through relaxation or meditation, which helps reduce the risk of flare-ups and improve your overall well-being.
3. Changes in weather or barometric pressure
Weather changes can worsen your RA symptoms, especially during cold and damp weather.
Temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure changes can affect joint pain and stiffness.
The exact connection between weather changes and RA symptoms is not fully known, but it is believed to involve changes in joint fluid pressure, blood flow, and nerve sensitivity.
Weather changes can also affect your mood and sleep quality, indirectly impacting RA symptoms.
4. Infection or illness
Infection or illness can worsen RA symptoms because they increase immune system activity and can end up causing inflammation. Some medications used to treat infections can also interact with your RA drugs and trigger side effects from counter-interactions.
It is essential to work with a healthcare provider and make them aware before you take any drugs.
5. Changes in medication or dosage
Changes in medication or dosage can also trigger rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups.
It can happen when you start a new medication or change the dosage of an existing prescription.
Some medications can take time to become effective, while others may cause side effects or interact with others.
You need to work closely with your rheumatologist to find the proper medications and dosages to manage their symptoms. You should also communicate any symptoms or side effects changes to your doctor.
6. Dietary factors, such as consuming certain foods or drinks
Dietary factors can also trigger rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups in some people.
While no specific diet can cure or prevent rheumatoid arthritis, some foods and drinks can worsen inflammation and cause symptoms to flare up.
7. Common dietary triggers for RA include:
- Foods that are high in saturated or trans fats
- Foods that are high in refined sugars
- Excessive alcohol
8. Lack of sleep or poor quality of sleep
Lack of sleep or poor sleep quality can also trigger RA flare-ups in some people.
Getting good-quality sleep is vital for your overall health and helps reduce inflammation.
However, RA can make it difficult to get comfortable at night and cause pain that wakes you up, creating a vicious cycle where lack of sleep worsens RA symptoms and makes sleeping harder.
Talk to your doctor if you’re struggling with sleep due to RA. They may be able to suggest changes to your medication or recommend sleep aids that are safe to use with RA.
Simple lifestyle changes—establishing a consistent bedtime routine or creating a sleep-conducive environment, can also help improve sleep quality.
9. Hormonal changes, particularly in women
Hormonal changes, especially in women, can also trigger rheumatoid arthritis (RA) flare-ups. Hormonal fluctuations can affect the immune system and increase inflammation, worsening RA symptoms.
For women with RA, hormonal changes can occur during pregnancy, menopause, and menstruation.
Some women may experience improved RA symptoms during pregnancy when estrogen and progesterone levels are high, while others may experience worsened symptoms during menstruation or menopause.
10. Exposure to environmental toxins or irritants
Exposure to environmental toxins or irritants, such as air pollution or chemicals, can trigger rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups by increasing inflammation in the body. It can lead to the worsening of RA symptoms, including joint pain, stiffness, and swelling.
Environmental toxins and irritants can come from various sources, including air pollution from traffic, industrial chemicals, and pesticides. Some cleaning products and personal care items may also contain chemicals that can trigger a reaction in people with RA.
11. Allergic reactions or sensitivities to certain substances or chemicals
Allergic reactions or sensitivities to certain substances or chemicals can trigger flare-ups. This can happen when the immune system reacts to a substance it perceives as a threat, leading to inflammation and worsening RA symptoms.
Common allergens that may trigger RA flare-ups include pollen, certain foods, and medications.
Some people with RA may also be sensitive to certain chemicals in cleaning products, personal care items, or workplace environments.
12. Joint injury or damage
Joint injury or damage can also trigger rheumatoid arthritis (RA) flare-ups because the injury or damage to the joint can lead to inflammation, worsening RA symptoms in the affected joint.
Joint injuries or damage can be caused by trauma, such as a fall or accident during exercises, or by repetitive stress, like overuse or strain from certain activities.
13. Smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke
Smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke is another trigger that can worsen rheumatoid arthritis (RA) symptoms. Research has shown that smoking can increase the risk of developing RA, exacerbate existing symptoms, and increase joint damage.
Smoking can also interfere with the effectiveness of some of your medications, making it more difficult to manage symptoms.
Secondhand smoke exposure also has similar effects, as the chemicals in cigarette smoke can cause inflammation and damage joints.
14. Excessive alcohol consumption
Excessive alcohol consumption can also trigger rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups. Alcohol can cause inflammation, worsen symptoms, and increase joint pain and stiffness.
Also, some RA medications may interact with alcohol, making them less effective or causing harmful side effects. It’s important to talk to your doctor about the risks of drinking alcohol while taking your RA medications.
15. Travel or changes in routine
Travel or changes in routine can also trigger rheumatoid arthritis (RA) flare-ups. Routine changes, such as sleep schedule alterations, can disrupt the body’s natural rhythms and increase inflammation and joint pain.
Travel can also lead to increased stress, exposure to different climates and environments, and difficulty maintaining healthy habits such as regular exercise and a balanced diet.
16. Surgery or medical procedures
Surgery or medical procedures can trigger rheumatoid arthritis (RA) flare-ups, according to a 2013 study of rheumatoid arthritis flares.
The stress of surgery or medical procedures can also lead to changes in hormone levels, which can contribute to RA flare-ups. Also, most people are instructed to discontinue or alter their medications after surgery.
How to cope with the pain of rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups
Engage in activities that bring joy.
Engaging in activities that bring joy and help you relax can be an effective way to cope with rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups. Some ideas include reading a book, watching a movie, listening to music, or spending time with loved ones.
Consider complementary therapies.
Complementary therapies like acupuncture or massages are also a way to cope with rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups. However, it is important to use complementary therapies in conjunction with, rather than as a substitute, for conventional medical treatment.
Eat a balanced and nutritious diet.
Eating a balanced and nutritious diet is vital for people with rheumatoid arthritis, as certain foods can help reduce inflammation and improve overall health. Consuming plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats is recommended. Also, avoiding processed and high-fat foods and limiting alcohol and sugar intake can help manage symptoms.
Staying hydrated is essential for overall health and especially important for those with rheumatoid arthritis during a flare-up. It helps to keep the joints lubricated and can also reduce inflammation.
Use heat or cold therapy.
Heat and cold therapy can help manage rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups. Applying heat to the affected joints can help to reduce stiffness and pain, while cold therapy can help to reduce swelling and inflammation.
Practice relaxation techniques.
Practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga can help reduce stress and promote relaxation, which can, in turn, help manage arthritis flare-ups.
Engage in light exercise or physical activity.
Engaging in light physical activities can help to reduce the severity of rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups. Low-impact exercises like walking, swimming, and yoga can improve joint flexibility, reduce stiffness, and strengthen the muscles around the joints.
Apply topical pain-relieving creams or ointments.
Topical creams or ointments can help relieve pain and inflammation in affected joints. Several topical creams are available over-the-counter or with a prescription that can provide temporary relief. Some common examples include capsaicin creams, NSAID creams, and menthol-based creams.
Use assistive devices such as canes, crutches, or braces.
Assistive devices can help people with rheumatoid arthritis manage their daily activities and reduce joint stress. You can get assistive devices such as canes, crutches, splints, hand-held devices, or braces with the help of an occupational therapist, who can evaluate your specific needs and make recommendations for the most appropriate devices.
Get plenty of rest and prioritize quality sleep.
Getting plenty of rest and quality sleep is essential for managing rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups, as It helps reduce fatigue and inflammation and promotes healing. Establish a regular sleep routine, create a comfortable environment, and avoid stimulating activities before bedtime.
Seek emotional support from friends, family, or a mental health professional.
Coping with rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups can be challenging, so seeking emotional support from friends, family, or a therapist is essential. Talking to others who understand what you’re going through can help alleviate feelings of isolation and depression.
Work with a healthcare provider or physical therapist to develop a personalized pain management plan.
Developing a personalized pain management plan can help you cope with rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups. It may involve working with a healthcare professional to create a plan that includes medications, lifestyle changes, and other strategies that work best for the individual. The plan should also be regularly reviewed and adjusted as needed.
How to reduce rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups
Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs).
DMARDs are medications used to treat rheumatoid arthritis (RA). They work by targeting the disease process and slowing or stopping the progression of RA, thereby reducing joint damage and disability.
There are several types, including traditional and biological DMARDs. They are often prescribed with other drugs to manage rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.
DMARDs can, however, have potential side effects, including increased risk of infection, liver damage, kidney damage, and gastrointestinal problems.
Regular monitoring is crucial when using DMARDs.
Biologics are a type of medication used to treat rheumatoid arthritis that targets specific components of the immune system involved in the development of RA and can slow or stop the progression of the disease, reduce inflammation and pain, and prevent joint damage.
Biologics are usually administered through injection or infusion. This medication may be used alone or in combination with other medications.
However, they can have potential side effects, including an increased risk of infection and allergic reactions.
Corticosteroids are a type of medication you can use to treat rheumatoid arthritis (RA) when other medications are not effective enough or in severe flare-ups.
They work by reducing inflammation in the body and can help to relieve joint pain and swelling.
You can take corticosteroids orally in pill form or injected into a joint or muscle. However, long-term use of corticosteroids can have side effects like weight gain, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and increased risk of infections.
The possible side effects make corticosteroids prescribed at the lowest effective dose for the shortest possible time.
Regular monitoring and communication with your doctor are essential when taking corticosteroids.
Regular exercise can help reduce rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups by strengthening your muscles, increasing joint flexibility, managing weight, and reducing inflammation. You need to consult with a professional before starting any exercise program.
Rest can help with flare-ups by reducing stress and promoting better sleep, which can help reduce inflammation and pain in the body.
You can benefit from taking daily rest breaks and engaging in relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga.
Diet plays a significant role in managing arthritis symptoms and reducing the intensity of flare-ups.
An anti-inflammatory diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce inflammation. On the other hand, consuming high amounts of processed foods, sugar, and saturated fats may increase inflammation and worsen flare-ups.
Stress management is an integral part of managing arthritis flare-ups. Stress has been known to increase inflammation, worsening your symptoms.
You need to prioritize self-care and make time for activities that bring you joy and relaxation, such as spending time with loved ones, reading a book, or engaging in a hobby.
When to seek medical help for a rheumatoid flare-up
If you often experience arthritis flare-ups, you should know when it is the right time to seek medical help.
As much as rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups are common and a regular part of your arthritis journey, there are times when you should seek medical help.
Here are some signs it may be time to seek medical help:
- Increased joint pain, swelling, or stiffness that persists after at-home treatments
- Fatigue or weakness that interferes with your daily activities
- Fever, chills, or other telltale signs of infection
- New or unusual peculiar arthritis symptoms, such as chest pain, shortness of breath, or numbness and tingling in your limbs
- Signs of an allergic reaction, e.g., hives or difficulty breathing after taking your medications
It’s important to discuss any concerns or changes in your symptoms with your rheumatologist, as they can provide better guidance on appropriate treatments and management strategies.
Living with rheumatoid arthritis can be challenging, but understanding and managing flare-ups can significantly improve your overall quality of life.
Using my tips for rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups outlined in this post, you can reduce their frequency and severity and stay one step ahead of your symptoms.
Listen to your body, take things at your own pace, and work closely with your doctor or rheumatologist to develop a personalized treatment plan.
You can manage your RA and enjoy a full and active life with patience, perseverance, and a positive attitude.
How do you manage your rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups?