Key points

  • An osteoarthritis (OA) flare-up, or flare, is a sudden increase in joint pain and other symptoms.
  • Medications and home remedies can help manage a flare.
  • Weight management and staying active are preventive measures that may help prevent a flare-up.
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Osteoarthritis (OA) mainly affects cartilage, the tissue that protects your bones and cushions your joints.

OA is a degenerative disease, meaning it’s likely to get worse over time. However, symptoms can also come and go. When they get worse for a while and then improve, this is known as a flare-up or flare.

A flare-up can appear suddenly and various factors can trigger it. However, with appropriate management, it’s usually temporary.

If your symptoms continue to worsen, you might be experiencing worsening joint damage and not simply a flare-up.

Symptoms of an OA flare-up may include:

  • increased joint pain
  • swelling of the affected area
  • reduced range of motion at the location of the joint
  • fatigue from increased pain

Find out more about OA symptoms.

It’s not always clear why a flare-up happens. Higher pain levels don’t always indicate more severe joint damage.

However, some people find that symptoms worsen for a while if they:

  • have an injury to the affected joint or joints
  • excessively or repeatedly use a joint
  • have stress
  • have changes in medications
  • experience cold or wet weather or a drop in barometric pressure

OA damages cartilage, the tissue that cushions your joint during movement. As cartilage breaks down, friction occurs between bones. If too much friction occurs, a flare-up may result.

Osteophytes, or bone spurs, can also develop with OA. Bone spurs are small pieces of bone that form as a result of inflammation near cartilage and tendons. They usually occur where bone touches bone.

As they grow, they can cause a flare-up of symptoms. Sometimes, pieces of bone or cartilage can come loose and cause more pain, inflammation, and other symptoms of a flare.

An OA flare is different from a rheumatoid arthritis (RA) flare. RA is a separate condition. It affects the immune system, which impacts the whole body. In OA, symptoms occur mainly in the affected joint.

Learn more about the causes of OA.

You may not need to see your doctor every time you have a flare-up.

However, if pain and other symptoms last beyond a few days, you may want to make an appointment. Your doctor can investigate any symptoms that seem to be progressing, such as a reduction in flexibility.

Tracking flares through a journal or app can help you and your doctor to monitor the progression of your OA. The information you collect can help inform the decisions you make about treatment.

Your doctor may recommend imaging tests, such as an X-ray or MRI. These can help identify changes that might indicate whether you’re experiencing a flare-up, long-term damage, or both.

If the results suggest new changes, your doctor will help you adjust your treatment plan to take these into account.

In time, flare-ups may become more frequent and symptoms can start to affect your mobility and quality of life. At this point, you may wish to consider joint replacement surgery.

Surgery is usually the last option for treating OA, but many people find it resolves recurring flare-ups and decreases the pain.

Treatment for OA and an OA flare-up usually involves a combination of over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription medications and home remedies. Talk to your doctor about the options below.

OTC solutions

OTC pain medications are often the first course of action for OA flare-ups.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are the most common OTC drugs for treating arthritis-related pain. These include ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve) as well as creams or ointments with NSAIDs or capsaicin.

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be useful and is beneficial for those who can’t tolerate NSAIDs. Pain medications don’t treat inflammatory joint disease.

All medications can have adverse effects, and it’s crucial to talk to a healthcare professional about which option to choose and how much to take.

Prescription medications

If symptoms worsen, whether temporarily or in the long term, OTC medications may not offer enough relief.

In this case, a doctor may prescribe medication, such as:

  • prescription-strength NSAIDs
  • tramadol (Ultram)
  • duloxetine (Cymbalta)
  • corticosteroid injections

The American College of Rheumatology and the Arthritis Foundation doesn’t recommend opioids, apart from tramadol. Opioids can have severe adverse effects, including the risk of dependency. For this reason, doctors tend to restrict their use.

Many people find that corticosteroid injections into a joint can relieve severe pain for several weeks or even months. However, frequent use can have adverse effects. It’s not usually possible to have more than four injections in a year.

Home remedies

Various home and lifestyle remedies can help manage OA. These may include:

  • Weight management. Additional weight puts extra pressure on a weight-bearing joint, such as the knee, and this can make symptoms worse. Losing weight can help alleviate symptoms of OA.
  • Exercise. Physical therapy and exercise can strengthen the muscles around a joint and allow them to support your joint more effectively.

Remedies that may help relieve symptoms during a flare-up include:

  • heat therapy to ease stiffness
  • cold compresses for pain relief
  • activities to reduce stress, such as yoga and tai chi
  • cane or walker to help with balance
  • braces, kinesiology tape, and other forms of joint support
  • rest between activities
  • acupuncture

Home remedies for OA flare-ups can help reduce pain, inflammation, and swelling, but you may also need medication. Speak with your healthcare provider if you notice home remedies aren’t helpful for your OA.

Joint damage is irreversible, but preventive measures can help minimize your risk of flare-ups and long-term damage.

The best strategy is to work with your doctor to make a treatment plan that involves both lifestyle measures and medical options.

Medications can help relieve symptoms, but they won’t stop damage from occurring. Weight management and exercise will be important in any long-term plan to manage OA.

An OA flare is temporary and symptoms usually improve within a few days. Various options can help you manage an OA flare and reduce its impact on your daily life.

If OA flare-ups are affecting your mobility and quality of life, speak to your doctor about the options available to you.

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