Top 5 Ways to Prevent Flares

If you live with inflammatory arthritis, you’re likely no stranger to flares. The pain, the stiffness, the crippling fatigue. It can take you by surprise and make you feel like you’re not in control of your life.

The good news is that there are ways to lower your chance of experiencing more frequent flares of disease activity and inflammation.

Arthritis Research Canada research scientist, clinical psychologist, and professor of medicine at McGill University, Dr. Susan Bartlett, has done extensive research on managing and preventing flares. She wants people to know that flares are more than an inconvenience.

“We believe permanent joint damage occurs during flares,” she said. “For this reason, preventing and stopping them quickly is very important.”

With Bartlett’s help, we’ve put together a list of the best ways to stop flares before they start. These tips are backed by years of research and the experiences of people with inflammatory arthritis around the world.

Don’t Stress

Doctors and researchers have known for a couple of decades that there is a direct connection between stress and flares. When someone can least cope with arthritis, they are also more vulnerable to having a flare. For example, a university student might experience flares around exam time when they are studying hard and sleeping less. Planning a wedding and getting ready to go on vacation are two other examples of high stress situations that can trigger flares.

According to Bartlett, many people noted their rheumatoid arthritis began at a time when they were experiencing high levels of stress. In fact, her research revealed that those who were diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis were twice as likely to have been in a car accident, gone through a divorce, or experienced major financial or relationship problems in the year before diagnosis compared to the general Canadian population.

Because of the close relationship between stress and increased disease activity, managing stress is very important. Learn to look at how you talk to yourself. What expectations are you putting on yourself? Are they realistic? Are you making everyone else’s life easier at your own expense?

Having outlets for stress is also important. For example, exercising regularly is a great way to reduce stress and the effect it has on the body. Make sure to get enough sleep and eat healthy food as well.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

If you are carrying excess weight, especially if your BMI higher than 30, you may be more vulnerable to having flares.

Besides feeling better and having more energy, losing weight can help your medications work more effectively, which means your disease may be easier to control at a lower dose.

Stop Smoking

The evidence is very clear. If you smoke, you are more likely to have flares. Cigarette smoking harms nearly all parts of your body but also contributes to the development and worsening of inflammatory arthritis.

One of the most important things you can do for your arthritis and overall health is to stop smoking. Something within the 4000 chemicals in cigarette smoke is akin to throwing gasoline on a fire. And it is never too late to quit and enjoy the health benefits that come with stopping smoking in as little as a few days.

If you are obese, smoke and are a woman, you are less likely to go into remission than if you are a non-smoker or at a healthy weight.

Take Your Medicine

Lifestyle makes a difference in vulnerability to flares, but so do changes in medications. People who take their medications regularly, and as prescribed, are less likely to report flares than those who don’t take them regularly. If you forget your medicine or cut back, you are more likely to experience a flare.

It’s important to take your medicines regularly. Discuss changes in medicines with your doctor. Make a decision if it’s a good time to reduce or taper medications. What things will you and your doctor look for to know if the tapering is going to be successful or trigger a flare?

Talk to Your Arthritis Team

The last thing is to communicate with your arthritis team. They need to know if you are constantly having small flares so that they can help to turn them around.

According to Bartlett’s research, many Canadians do not contact their rheumatologists when they are in a major inflammatory flare. Due to long wait times, they assume it will take several weeks to see their doctor and that their flare will be over by then. It is important to tell your doctor about flares you experience between visits.

BONUS: Already in a Flare?

Bartlett said that one of the really inspiring things that came out of her research was that, when people with rheumatoid arthritis have flares, they are incredibly creative in dealing with them. Here are some of the different ways people reported managing flares:

  • Cancel everything, crawl into bed, and tell your family that they’re on their own.
  • Stand under the shower until the water runs cold.
  • Add or increase medications for a short period of time (under your doctor’s supervision).
  • Try massage or whole body movements like gentle yoga.
  • Use heating pads or cool pack
  • Rest, relax and give your body a break. Spend some time resting in a dark room.
  • Use pillows to help position joints comfortably. Get up and move every hour to prevent stiffness.
  • If nothing is working, reach out to your rheumatologist or family doctor.

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