Arthritis comes in two basic types: osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Osteoarthritis usually results from the wear and tear on joints that is part of the aging process, though it’s also influenced by other factors, including weight, overuse, lack of physical activity and injuries. RA is due to a malfunction in the body’s immune system; it attacks the joints and affects internal organs. Flare-ups are an exacerbation of these pre-existing conditions.
An arthritic flare-up can be as simple as increased pain in a knee joint, or serious enough to land the sufferer in the hospital. Flare-ups are almost always related to increased inflammation. Often this occurs because the joint has been overused, such as might happen when you are overly enthusiastic in starting a new exercise program. It might also occur because of a sudden stress on a joint, such as when you slip or fall and hit your knee or stick out your hand to prevent a fall. For those with rheumatoid arthritis, a flare-up may also be the result of an infection or follow a particularly stressful situation.
Signs of onset of an arthritis flare-up
People who have arthritis are generally aware of the common symptoms of stiffness, pain and swelling that accompany the condition. When a flare-up occurs, those symptoms tend to increase, so you may find it more difficult than usual to get out of bed in the morning, or you may discover that you have to get up and move around more frequently during the day.
Tests to identify arthritis flare-ups
If you have rheumatoid arthritis, you may also want to get a blood test to see if your erythrocyte sedimentation rate—quite often simply called a “sed rate”—or C reactive protein blood levels have risen. While these aren’t specifically related to RA, they do indicate an increase in inflammation, meaning they can help you and your doctor track the progress of the flare-up.
It’s important to address arthritic flare-ups as soon as possible, because of the damage the increased inflammation can do to already compromised joints.
Most people who have arthritis take some kind of anti-inflammatory medication on a regular basis, whether prescription or over-the-counter. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about stepping up the dosage for a time.
Cold packs can be particularly useful in controlling the pain and swelling in joints during a flare-up. Be sure to put a cloth between the cold pack and your skin, and use the pack about 15 minutes at a time, several times each day.
You may need to back off of your exercise regimen or change the type of exercises you’re doing. Exercising in water may be beneficial, as it is less stressful on your joints.
It’s important for those with arthritis to maintain good strength and range of motion in their joints, but you need to choose activities that don’t increase joint stress. Tennis, running and basketball can be pretty tough on arthritic knees and hips. Walking, swimming and strengthening exercises are all generally helpful, as is keeping your weight down.