The term arthritis covers a group of conditions involving inflammation of one or more joints. The conditions fall loosely into two categories, degenerative (wear and tear based) and inflammatory (autoimmune based). The most common of these are osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis respectively. Arthritis needs to be properly diagnosed by a doctor, but you can find out more about the different types of arthritis here.
A flare is, put simply, an increase in the frequency or severity of symptoms. Most chronic (long-term) conditions flare from time to time, even with the best care. The nature and presentation of a flare will depend on the condition itself. As osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis have different origins, flares will present differently, and have different causes. This article looks at the main flare triggers for each type, and offer some tips for coping with flares when they happen.
Osteoarthritis is degenerative in nature. It is caused by the wearing away of the cartilage, and overgrowth of bone in the joints.
An osteoarthritis flare is characterised by an increase in pain and swelling of the affected joint(s). This may be accompanied by increased stiffness, and a reduced ability to use the joint. Osteoarthritis is a mechanical condition, and the causes of flares are predominantly external, i.e. Not originating within the body.
Common causes of osteoarthritis flares
- Overuse of the joint
- Injury to the joint or surrounding areas
- Weight gain, especially on load bearing joints such as knees and hips
- Cold weather
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder. It is caused by a fault in the immune system, causing healthy tissue to be attacked as if it were diseased. This produces inflammation in the joints, and can lead to permanent damage over time.
A rheumatoid arthritis flare can look similar to an osteoarthritis flare, but the causes are likely to be very different. Increased pain, swelling, redness and stiffness of the joint are all common signs of a rheumatoid arthritis flare, but extreme fatigue and flu-like symptoms may also be reported. As rheumatoid arthritis is autoimmune in nature, the causes of flares mostly come from within the body.
Common causes of rheumatoid arthritis flares
- Illness or infection
- Interruption to, or changing medication
- Lack of sleep
Unfortunately, rheumatoid arthritis can sometimes flare up without any clear cause. That is the unpredictable nature of autoimmune disorders.
Coping with a flare
The advice for coping with arthritis flares is similar, regardless of the specific variety of arthritis. The first priority is to reduce the pain and swelling. Heat or cold packs applied to the affected joint(s) may provide relief. Painkillers are another, obvious, line of defence. For a mild flare-up, over the counter medications may be enough. For more severe flares prescription anti-inflammatory medicines, or opioid medicines such as codeine might be required.
It's important to note that codeine, whilst it may be effective at relieving pain in the short term (such as for a flare-up), is not effective at relieving inflammation in the joints, which is commonly attributed to arthritis. For this reason, you should speak to your doctor about long-term pain management.
Certain alternative therapies such as acupuncture and meditation have been shown to be effective in reducing pain, and increasing tolerance, in some people. The scientific research is limited, but promising, so it may be worth trying these options in addition to your normal treatment.
It may be tempting to rest completely during a flare, but long periods of inactivity may actually make things worse. Instead, try to balance rest and relaxation with gentle exercise to keep the joints mobile.
An arthritis flare is a temporary state in a chronic condition. It is important to be aware that symptoms should settle down again. If an arthritis flare continues for more than a few days, particularly in the case of rheumatoid arthritis, consult a medical professional.