Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks connective tissues and joints.
In the course of RA, there tend to be episodes of worsening pain, stiffness, and swelling called flares of the disease. If they're not treated, they can eventually lead to lack of mobility and debilitating pain.
Responding appropriately to these flares can ease your pain and help you stay independent.
"The bottom line is, many people with RA have good and bad days," says Dr. Patience White, at the Arthritis Foundation.
Determining the cause of flares can be difficult, but you can take steps to address them.
"There are medications that should keep flares from occurring, if they're administered appropriately" she says. "If you're having a lot of flares, ask your doctor to take another look at your treatment."
It's also important to discuss with your health care provider a plan of action for dealing with flares so you know what steps to take in an acute situation.
Ideas for coping
Depending on the severity of your condition, your provider may offer these suggestions:
Balance periods of activity with periods of rest. Getting more rest during a flare can relieve symptoms, but you still should put your joints through their full range of motion to keep them from freezing up or becoming stiff. The Foundation offers a Life Improvement Series that can start you on an exercise program and help you with self-management of your condition.
Spend time doing relaxation exercises. Find those that work best for you, and practice the techniques so you're ready to use them when needed.
Wrap a towel around a hot-water bottle or a hot pack and place it on the painful area.
Apply a cold pack to the painful area. Cold numbs tissues and reduces inflammation and swelling. "You can apply heat or cold because both treatments can be effective," Dr. White says. "Experiment to see which remedy eases your pain."
Ask if you can take an over-the-counter medication, such as ibuprofen, to relieve pain.
"Lastly, making a commitment to being physically active can make a huge difference in how you feel," Dr. White says. "Being physically fit improves your well-being, reduces pain, and relieves depression, all of which can make living with RA easier."