Beginner’s Guide: Rheumatoid Arthritis Flare Up

This post is 100% inspired by the fact that I’m currently experiencing a rheumatoid arthritis flare up! A lot of people don’t know what it means what I say that I’m having a “flare,” but flares are an annoying part of living with RA. In fact, a flare is how I got officially diagnosed with RA 10 years ago this July. So in this post, I use my personal experience to explain them, as well as information from reputable sources.

As a reminder, I’m not a medical professional. I’m a patient and I’m using medical sources in this post. Additionally, this post does contain affiliate links. Thank you for supporting Kate the (Almost) Great!

In this post, RA patient Kate the (Almost) Great explains what exactly a rheumatoid arthritis flare up is, how to deal with it, and products to make it easier.

Whether you’re a newly-diagnosed RA patient, someone who knows and cares for an RA patient, or someone has a similar type of arthritis, I hope that this post helps you in some way.

This post will address:

  • what a rheumatoid arthritis flare is
  • how to deal with them
  • and products to help you get through them

That being said, let’s get into the meat of the post!

What is a Rheumatoid Arthritis Flare Up?

As I say in my Arthritis Glossary post, verywellhealth defines a flare as “an episode of increased disease activity or worsening symptoms. People with arthritis typically recognize a flare by the sudden intensity in joint pain accompanied by other characteristic symptoms such as fever, fatigue, malaise, stiffness, or joint swelling” (x).

Similarly, the Arthritis Foundation says, “A flare is a period of increased disease activity or worsening symptoms – a time when the medications you normally rely on to control your disease don’t seem to work” (x).

Both of those definitions apply to arthritis in general. But for RA specifically, “a flare can be related to natural variations in the processes that cause inflammation. This means flares can vary in intensity, duration and frequency, but they’re usually reversible – if treated promptly” (x).

It’s also important to remember that – as RA can affect many areas of the body, as well as joints – RA flares can involve multiple joints, organs, etc. So while increased joint pain is miserable on its own, flares can involve many different areas of the body. If you have moderate symptoms normally, a flare will exacerbate them, regardless of the affected area of the body.

How arthritis affects the body

What exactly a rheumatoid arthritis flare is Click To Tweet

How long exactly is a flare? There is some debate among patients as to how many days it officially counts as a flare. I personally wait until day 4 or 5, and every day before that is just a bad day. I do that because for me personally, it’s very easy to have a singular bad day, and for every bad day I have, it takes 2 to recover. So at day 4 or 5, I’ve got an idea if I’m just recovering from overdoing it or from a bad weather day. I also do that because, to me as an RA patient, a flare means I increase my steroid dosage, so I need to be positive that it’s a flare. On the other hand, for someone who doesn’t take steroids for flares, their definition might be different.

What is the difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis?

If this isn’t your first arthritis post on my blog, you know that there are over 100 forms of arthritis. So why am I just talking about rheumatoid arthritis in this post? Because, with so many forms of arthritis, flares look slightly (or not slightly) different depending on the type. I want to do a deep-dive on RA flares in this post, so I’m not going to get into what flares look like in psoriatic arthritis, lupus, osteoarthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, or any other form.

So if flares involve increased symptoms overall, what are those symptoms specifically? It was touched on at the beginning of this section, but for rheumatoid arthritis flare ups, there’s joints pain and swelling, fatigue, and low fevers (x). Autoimmune patients (of many different autoimmune diseases!) frequently have low fevers because the immune system is involved.

Chronic illness advice: resources for the newly-diagnosed patient

rheumatoid arthritis flare up, rheumatoid arthritis flare, rheumatoid arthritis, rheum, rheumy, RA, arthritis, autoimmune, autoimmune disease, autoimmune arthritis, rheumatology, chronic illness, chronic pain, spoonie, spoonie life

How To Deal with a Rheumatoid Arthritis Flare Up

First and foremost, you need to learn how to recognize a flare. Yes, a flare is an overall increase in symptoms, but that’s going to look different from person to person. One way this could look is that if all of your personal normal symptoms are worse than normal multiple days in a row, then you’re probably having a flare. But another way this could look is that if you don’t normally have a certain symptom but you’re suddenly having it for multiple days, then you’re probably having a flare.

For me personally, flares are when I’m extra tired no matter how much sleep I get, my morning stiffness lasts longer than usual, and my especially bad joints are all (or mostly all) being problems. For example, with the flare that I’m currently having, I knew that it was a flare when I was on day 3 of extra fatigue, most of my joints were bothering me, and my right foot, right wrist, right knee, and jaw were all bothering me specifically. Those are all of my worst joints; I’ve had surgery on my right foot, both of my knee surgeries have been on my right knee, I know that my right wrist has erosion on the cartilage, and I know that my TMJs are both messed up.

But what do you do once you know that you’re having a flare?

As soon as you know that you’re in a flare, reach out to your rheumatologist. Explain what your symptoms are and how long you’ve had them. I also suggest explaining how it’s messing up your life! This helps them know what exactly you’re dealing with.

Your rheumatologist might tell you to increase your steroids or add a quick steroid treatment. Unfortunately, that’s the best way to zap your flare at the source. But what do you do until it kicks in, or if you don’t want to take/increase steroids?

For your bad joints in particular, you can utilize the RICE method: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation (x). While this method is ideal for soft tissue injuries, it also helps joints in particular and flares in general.

How to deal with a rheumatoid arthritis flare Click To Tweet

Like I’ve mentioned, a symptom of rheumatoid arthritis is fatigue, so frequently excess fatigue is a symptom of flares. Extra rest is needed to help deal with this! You can’t metaphorically outrun autoimmune diseases or autoimmune flares. Let me tell you from experience: you have to take care of your body.

Ice is known to help with inflammation, which is why it’s great when your ankle is the size of a balloon when you sprain it. If you’re having an RA flare, then you’re going to have lots of inflammation because it’s an inflammatory autoimmune disease, even if your joints don’t look that different. Ice your problem joints, or, if you’re at a cold lake or ocean, stick your joints in that.

Compression is another way to help inflammation. Additionally, you can support your problem joints through stabilization by wrapping them or wearing a brace. That can help reduce inflammation before it gets too excited and messes up your joints.

Finally, elevation is another wonderful way to deal with inflammation. Propping your joints up while you’re on the couch or your bed can help a lot.

It’s also important to be aware of what exactly your flare symptoms are and when they started so you can tell what might have caused your flare up. This obviously doesn’t help you much in the moment, but it can help you avoid having a flare in the future. I think that this flare was caused by stress about COVID-19, as I’m high-risk for it and it’s a very stressful situation for everyone. I’ve also had flares because of pressure at work, a bad break-up, and other things. Basically, excess stress can cause flares.

There’s only so much you can do for a flare, but it’s important to know if you’re having a flare or if your RA is getting worse. This is why it’s so important to talk to your rheumatologist and let them know what’s going on: if you email them about a flare and then two months later when you see them you’re still experiencing the symptoms, then they’ll know that it might (unfortunately) be worsening RA and not a flare.

On that cheery note, let’s talk about things that have helped me deal with flares.

How is arthritis treated? | Helping someone with RA

Free printable to prepare you for chronic pain medical appointments

Products To Help Your Rheumatoid Arthritis Flare Up

These are a bunch of products that have helped me get through flares over the years! They may help you, they may not, but I think that it’s worth sharing in case they do help.

Ice packs – As I said above when talking about the RICE method, one of the best ways to deal with inflammation in the moment is through ice. I really like these gel bead ones because they can also be heated up if you need them for something else. Multi-purpose!

Hot + Cold Gel Bead Knee Wrap (with Strap) | Hot + Cold Gel Bead Back Wrap with Strap | Hot + Cold Gel Bead Compress (no specific area)

Heating pad – If you have inflammation in a joint, you might have muscle pain around that joint. I experience this a lot with my back; I’ll have inflammation in my spine and then muscle pain around the spine. Just like ice is best for inflammation, heat is best for muscle tightness and pain.

Sunbeam XpressHeat Heating Pad (this is the one I have!)| PureRelief Extra Long Back and Neck Gray Heating Pad | Pure Enrichment PureRelief XXL Extra Wide Heating Pad

Braces for your worst joints – I don’t like to use braces unless I have to because I don’t want my muscles and joints to become dependent on them, but they’re super necessary for flares. I really don’t suggest getting one unless your doctor agrees that it can be helpful (unless you have a super annoying doctor), but if you do get one, make sure that it just supports the joint itself. The last thing you need is to be reliant on a brace! There are a lot of braces out there now, and for a wide variety of reasons, so do your research.

FUTURO Comfort Stabilizing Wrist Brace|FUTURO Hinged Knee Brace Adjustable| Copper Fit Hand Relief Gloves

KT tape – I have mentioned this before online, but I loooove KT tape. “KT Tape” is the brand, but it’s also a category of athletic tape. KT stands for “kinesthetic therapy” and I was introduced to it by my physical therapist after my first knee surgery. Basically, it provides support and/or helps your joint move correctly. Honestly, I haven’t worn a knee brace since my first knee surgery because I’ve used KT tape ever since. I suggest their “Pro” version because it lasts longer (up to a week rather than a day or two, except for on the hand). Also, the KT Tape website has a ton of guides for using it depending on the area and the purpose, both in video format and PDF. And they’re super nice! I emailed them asking for advice on taping my fingers, and they got back to me with advice and guides.

Compression wear – Compression gear can be used for a variety of uses, but for RA, it’s very helpful for helping with inflammation. Remember – the C in RICE stands for compression! I actually first got compression gear to help with my POTS symptoms, but it was in the year after my most recent foot/ankle surgery, and I was thrilled to discover that it helped with the inflammation and pain from that!

FUTURO Performance Compression Knee Sleeve | Futuro Hand/Wrist Compression Glove | Copper Fit Hand Relief Gloves

Icy Hot Spray – This is such a simple product, and yet I overlooked it for so long. But no more! I’ve mentioned this multiple times on Twitter, but I have extremely annoying ribs. They don’t like to stay in place due to inflammation, and I can’t put them back myself. Normally, my chiropractor does it for me, but with COVID, I haven’t seen him since March. I discovered how wonderful Icy Hot is for my inflamed ribs during one particularly rough flare and it changed my life (no joke).

Problems from my inflammatory arthritis + how to do deal with them

6 things that can help your rheumatoid arthritis flare Click To Tweet

How do you deal with your rheumatoid arthritis flare?

Like this post? Check out:

How Chronic Illness Affects Relationships, Caring for Rheumatoid Arthritis Patients, Why Is Rheumatoid Arthritis Hard to Diagnose?, 10 Things I Wish I Knew When I Received My Rheumatoid Arthritis Diagnosis

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  • Reply Maly

    Hi Kate! I’m an RA blogger and a big fan of your work. I was so drawn to this post because I hear from a lot of people with RA that they are in a flare but have never really experienced one myself. I guess I’m one of the lucky ones. Anyhow, it was great to read more about it and hope that I’ll continue on my track record. If not, I have your handy tips to help me. Thanks so much for your blog and continue to inspire the rest of us RA warriors.

    June 3, 2020 at 7:52 pm
    • Reply Kate

      Thank you so much for this comment! It really means a lot to me. That’s great that you haven’t really experienced flares – I hope that continues!

      June 17, 2020 at 4:58 pm
  • Reply Miamii Mansour

    A fabulous post! Thanks for sharing! I take Ibrofen or Paracetamol and apply Volterol on the flared area. I also drink turmeric and nettle teas as they’re good anti-inflammatories too. I try to take herbs more than prescribed ones, as there are some side effects that I’m scared of. X

    December 28, 2020 at 1:52 pm
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