I enjoy thrill rides at amusement parks; the sudden drop, the unforeseen curve, and the high-speed descent all make for an exciting adventure. I can’t say the same for the unpredictable and lightning-fast flares that can turn life with rheumatoid arthritis into a roller coaster ride of pain and emotions.
Flares typically involve increased pain levels and joints that are more swollen and stiffer than usual. The erratic nature of flares is one of the most frustrating parts of RA. The pain is sudden, intense, and scary. And flare experiences vary from person to person, making them difficult to diagnose and treat.
My flares typically involve intense fatigue and relentless pain, but others may experience a fever, flu-like symptoms, rashes, or severely swollen joints. Flares are unpredictable and debilitating and are one of the most challenging pieces I’ve had to address emotionally and physically in my RA journey.
I remember being terrified by my first flare. I thought maybe my medicine wasn’t working or that my disease had progressed. My hands were unusually sore and tender, and I had difficulty using my fingers and hands to do simple tasks like holding a cup or opening a door. I was also extremely tired and felt like I was coming down with something. In a panic, I called the doctor, and his physician assistant calmly told me I was experiencing a flare, that it was a normal part of RA, and I would be OK.
Flares typically bring my life to a screeching halt. I put work, family, and my social life on hold until I feel better. I rely on a combination of techniques to help my flares:
- Rest, rest, rest
- Anti-inflammatory medications
- Heat: heating pad, hot paraffin wax dip, hot tub
- Gentle exercise, especially swimming
- Ginger oil on achy joints
- Extra doses of turmeric capsules
- Did I mention rest?
I’ve also found that words of encouragement from a trusted friend or a shoulder to lean on can provide relief. The emotional despair caused by a flare can be just as debilitating as the pain. A flare is frightening and isolating, but getting through your first flare will give you confidence that you can do it again. You know it will pass and you’ll feel better. One good thing about my flares is that they end rather abruptly. I may have them for a few days, but then they tend to vanish all of sudden.
My best advice is to try to prevent flares. I’m vigilant about my rest and sleep. When I start to feel run down, I turn to naps and earlier bedtimes. While it’s easier said than done, managing stress is key. I use a meditation app on my phone and a breathing program on my Fitbit. Even a 2-minute breathing exercise can make a difference and give your body a needed break.
We all have days when we overdo it -- a work conference, a full day in the garden, a wedding -- but we need to plan for those days. If I know I have big event coming up, I try to prepare with light days before and after. I schedule naps, focus on good nutrition, and take an anti-inflammatory. Alternating ice and heat on problem joints can also help avoid triggering a flare. I may even seek prescription help from my doctor.
If self-care measures like rest and anti-inflammatory medicines aren’t enough, I recommend you talk to your doctor. They may be able to help with prescription medication to address your symptoms. Also, consistent flares may be a sign that you need a medication adjustment or other change in treatment.
Remember, you can and will get through an RA flare! They’re tough, but not as tough as you are when you rely on the mental and physical techniques that help you cope with a flare.
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