Understanding RA

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. 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
  • bumps under the skin

One particularly difficult aspect of RA is coping with flares, which are severe episodes of symptoms.

An RA flare can involve an exacerbation of any symptom of the disease, but most commonly includes intense stiffness in the joints.

The duration and intensity of flares vary. They are often severe enough to interfere with everyday tasks, such as:

  • getting dressed
  • driving
  • holding utensils

RA flares can be extremely painful. In the most severe cases, they 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, and don’t ignore them.

Keep a record of when you experience a flare, and you may begin to identify the early signs.

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 symptoms of flares:

  • increased stiffness in joints
  • pain throughout the entire body
  • increased difficulty doing everyday tasks
  • swelling, such as causing shoes not to fit
  • intense fatigue
  • flu-like symptoms

It’s important to know your body well enough to recognize a flare in the early stages. 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, any of the following might trigger a flare:

  • certain foods
  • medicines
  • chemicals

Events and situations may also worsen your RA. Make note of any of these that precede a flare:

  • injuries
  • infections
  • stress
  • activities

According to the Arthritis Foundation, research suggests that stress can exacerbate the symptoms of RA and lead to painful flares. Stress 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.

Any of these activities may help:

  • meditation
  • yoga
  • talking with a friend
  • engaging in a relaxing hobby

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 your unique needs. But typically 6 to 8 hours is recommended.

Getting enough quality sleep can also help you to manage stress.

Exposure to environmental toxins may trigger RA flares. These may include:

  • air pollutants
  • cigarette smoke
  • chemicals

Avoid being around people who smoke, if possible. And if you live in an area prone to smog and pollution, avoid going outdoors when air quality is at its worst.

Also, if you notice that household chemicals such as cleaners trigger your flares, switch to natural products.

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 symptoms. If you’re engaging in physical activities that could cause an injury, take care to protect yourself.

RA shouldn’t be an excuse to avoid physical activity. But just be sure to take care of your body and limit yourself as needed.

An infection or a virus can trigger flares of RA because they will cause your immune system to ramp up its activity.

Staying healthy and avoiding illnesses such as the following can go a long way toward preventing flares:

  • the flu
  • a cold
  • a skin infection

Use preventative measures, such as washing your hands regularly and avoiding people who are sick.

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.