Written by Mary Ellen Ellis
Medically Reviewed on January 29, 2014 by George Krucik, MD, MBA
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Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that causes joints to be painful, stiff, and swollen. There’s no cure for RA, but treatments and medications can slow its progression and provide relief from symptoms.
No one knows exactly what causes RA, but the symptoms are a result of an immune system attack on joint tissues. RA is a complex disease that results in symptoms beyond painful joints. These can include fatigue, weight loss, fever, and bumps under the skin.
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One particularly difficult aspect of RA is coping with flares, which are severe episodes of symptoms. The duration and intensity of flares vary, but they’re often severe enough to interfere with everyday tasks like getting dressed, driving, or holding utensils.
An RA flare can involve an exacerbation of any symptom of the disease, but most commonly includes intense stiffness in the joints.
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Recognizing a Flare Early
RA flares can be extremely painful, and in the most severe cases, can interrupt your life for hours, days, or even weeks. Preventing flares is a better strategy than treating them. In order to do this, you need to be able to recognize the signs of an oncoming flare.
To do that, be aware of your body and how RA affects it. Take note of any changes—don’t ignore them. Keep a record of when you experience a flare and you may begin to identify the early signs.
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Common Signs of a Flare
Everyone with RA is different. Being able to recognize a flare early will depend on your unique triggers and symptoms. People with RA report these common signs of flares:
increased stiffness in joints
pain throughout the entire body
increased difficulty doing everyday tasks
signs of swelling, such as shoes not fitting
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Identify Your Triggers
Being aware enough of your body to recognize a flare in its early stages is important. To prevent them from occurring, you need to find out what exacerbates your RA. Keep a record of your symptoms and note factors in your environment during a flare.
For example, certain foods, medicines, or chemicals may trigger a flare. Events and situations may also worsen your RA. Make note of injuries, infections, stress, and activities that precede a flare.
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Some research shows that stress can exacerbate the symptoms of RA and lead to painful flares. It can even worsen the condition of your joints. It’s important for you to manage your stress as part of a plan to prevent flares.
Be aware of situations that cause you stress and try to avoid them. Develop strategies for reducing stress that work for you. Try meditation, yoga, talking with a friend, or engaging in a relaxing hobby to reduce stress before it gets out of hand.
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Get to Bed
Research published in the journal Sleep shows that lack of sleep or poor quality sleep can worsen RA symptoms. Make sure you get enough sleep every night. How much you need depends on you as an individual, but between six and eight hours is recommended. Getting enough high-quality sleep can also help you to manage stress.
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Avoid Smoke and Pollutants
Exposure to environmental toxins such as pollutants in the air, cigarette smoke, and chemicals may trigger RA flares. Avoid being around people who smoke, if possible. If you live in an area prone to smog and pollution, avoid going outdoors when it’s at its worst. If you notice that household chemicals like cleaners trigger your flares, switch to natural products.
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Watch Your Activities
Overworking your body and your joints can cause your RA to flare up. The longer you live with your disease, the better you’ll come to understand your limits. Avoid overdoing physical activity and learn to recognize when you might be experiencing the early signs of a flare.
Trauma to a joint can also exacerbate your disease. If you’re engaging in physical activities that could cause an injury, take care to protect yourself. That’s not an excuse to avoid physical activity. Just be sure to take care of your body and limit yourself as needed.
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Infections can trigger flares of RA because an infection will cause your immune system to ramp up its activity. Staying healthy and avoiding illnesses like the flu, a cold, or a skin infection, can go a long ways toward preventing flares. Use preventative measures such as washing your hands regularly and avoiding people who are sick.
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Treat RA Flares
In spite of your best efforts, you may still have the occasional flare. When you do, use home remedies to lessen your symptoms. Hot and cold packs on joints can help reduce pain, stiffness, and swelling. Resting your joints will help them to recover more quickly, and meditation can help you relax and manage your pain.
It may help to have a plan ready in the event that you can’t meet your usual obligations. This will give you one less thing to worry about. If you can’t control your flare symptoms on your own, see your doctor.