Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that causes joints to be painful, stiff, and swollen.

Coping with flares, or severe episodes of symptoms, is a particularly difficult aspect of RA.

An RA flare can involve an exacerbation of any symptom of the disease, but most commonly it’s characterized by intense pain and stiffness in the joints.

Flares are often severe enough to interfere with everyday tasks, such as:

  • getting dressed, grooming, and bathing
  • preparing meals
  • performing simple household chores
  • driving
  • holding utensils or opening doors

RA is a complex disease that results in symptoms beyond just painful joints. These can include:

  • fatigue
  • weight loss
  • fever
  • bumps (inflammatory nodules) under the skin

People with RA also report these common symptoms of flares:

  • increased stiffness in joints
  • pain throughout the entire body
  • increased difficulty doing everyday tasks
  • swelling of hands and feet as well as large joints
  • 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 or triggers 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
  • change of medications
  • chemicals

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

  • injuries
  • infections
  • stress
  • lack of restorative sleep
  • stressful physical activities

A variety of sensations are caused by RA flare-ups:

  • pain or aching in more than one joint
  • stiffness in more than one joint
  • tenderness and swelling in more than one joint
  • limited movement in joints and decreased mobility

The duration and intensity of flare-ups varies. It’s more than likely that you have RA if you experience:

  • joint pain, tenderness, swelling or stiffness that lasts for 6 weeks or longer
  • morning stiffness that lasts for 30 minutes or longer

RA occurs when the body’s immune system doesn’t work properly and attacks its own healthy cells. There are, however, some factors that can increase the risk of developing the disease or triggering flares.

Exercise

Overworking your body and your joints can cause your RA to flare up. The longer you live with the disease, the better you’ll come to understand your limits.

Avoid pushing yourself too hard during 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.

Having RA doesn’t mean you should avoid physical activity. But just be sure to protect your joints and limit your activity as needed.

Foods

There are some foods that increase inflammation in the body and should be avoided by people with RA. These foods include:

  • red meat and processed meats
  • foods with added sugars
  • foods high in salt
  • gluten
  • alcohol
  • dairy products
  • foods high in MSG

Eliminating these foods from your diet can help reduce the severity of RA symptoms.

Smoking/pollutants

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.

Sleep

RA patients who don’t get enough sleep tend to have more trouble with pain severity and increased flare-ups than RA patients who sleep well.

The body also uses the deepest stages of sleep to release growth hormones. These hormones repair tiny muscle tears that occur during the day. Sleep-deprived RA patients may not produce enough growth hormones to make needed repairs.

Allergies

There’s some evidence that there’s a connection between food allergies as well as environmental allergens and RA. Allergic reactions trigger inflammation and can exacerbate joint symptoms.

A study in the North American Journal of Medical Sciences found that people who have a milk or egg allergy are more likely to develop RA.

A study from the International Journal of Rheumatology revealed that there is an association between RA and respiratory allergic diseases in Korean adults.

People with asthma who participated in the study were shown to have an increased risk for developing RA, while participants with allergic rhinitis (hay fever or seasonal allergies) were the second most likely to develop RA.

Stress

According to the Arthritis Foundation, 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

There’s no cure for RA, but treatments and medications can slow its progression and provide relief from symptoms.

In spite of your best efforts, you may still have the occasional flare. When you do, use home remedies along with your regular prescribed medications 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.

There’s no miracle diet for arthritis. However, the following foods can help fight inflammation and improve joint pain symptoms:

  • fish
  • nuts and seeds
  • fruits and vegetables
  • olive oil
  • beans
  • whole grains

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.

RA is a potentially debilitating disease, but you can lessen the impact it has on your life and your body with medication and dietary changes.

If you suspect that you have RA, it’s best to consult with a medical professional.