Here’s Why Your Arthritis is Flaring Up
September 17, 2017
It doesn’t always feel like this. Sometimes it’s a dull ache, other times a sharp pain, and occasionally it’s unnoticeable. Arthritis is a touchy condition, and it’s nearly impossible to pin down when it will flare up. However, many people will find themselves hurting a little more than normal as the weather begins to cool. Today, we’re going to discuss what it means for arthritis to be flaring up, possible causes, and treatments.
If you find yourself questioning why your arthritis is flaring up, you are not alone. According to the Arthritis Foundation, 40 million American adults suffer from arthritis, and they expect another 38 million diagnoses by 2040. As a matter of fact, the Arthritis Foundation also reports that arthritis is the number one disability facing Americans today. It affects 1 in every 5 adults, 1 in every 250 children, and causes $156 billion in loss every year. With that knowledge, it’s easy to see that arthritis is an important condition to understand.
What does “flaring up” actually mean?
To understand what flaring up is, we need to understand the science behind arthritis. Arthritis itself is not actually a disease, but instead a group of joint disorders. There are over 100 types of arthritis, the most common of which is osteoarthritis. The Arthritis Foundation notes that osteoarthritis occurs:
“when the cartilage – the slick, cushioning surface on the ends of bones – wears away, bone rubs against bone, causing pain, swelling and stiffness. Over time, joints can lose strength and pain may become chronic. Risk factors include excess weight, family history, age and previous injury (an anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, tear, for example).”
Now that we understand that arthritis is caused by degeneration of the joints, it isn’t hard to guess what causes arthritis to flare up. A flare occurs when there is inflammation around the joint, which can occur for innumerable reasons. Everyday Health also ran an article that noted that a flare is sometimes just a period of increased disease, though this cannot occur with osteoarthritis. Healthline lists the symptoms of an osteoarthritis flare as increased joint pain, swelling in the affected area, reduced range of motion at the location of the joint, and fatigue from increased pain.
What causes osteoarthritis flares?
The major cause of osteoarthritis flares, as many people are aware of, is joint overuse. As Healthline notes, the degeneration of cartilage takes away the shock absorption. Think of it like a flat tire—once the cartilage is gone, there is nothing between your hub cap and the road. This leaves those suffering from osteoarthritis at a severe risk should they be overambitious in physical activity.
Unsurprisingly, injury is a severe issue for those suffering from osteoarthritis. Perhaps the worst flares come from twisted ankles and tweaked elbows. Other causes include stress, repetitive movement, infections, and weight gain.
Arthritis, and osteoarthritis especially, is a hyena. It won’t pounce as though it’s ready to kill, but will pick at you after something else already has you down. Except in one case: cold weather.
Like snow, polar bears, and Santa Claus, arthritis thrives in the cold weather. In 2014, a study performed in BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders showed that 67% of people who suffered from osteoarthritis were weather sensitive. If that weren’t already frightening, a similar study in 2015 (also linked in the above article) found links between humidity and joint pain—an effect that is worsened in cold weather.
Doctors and scientists are unsure of the exact reason that these effects occur. Many subscribe to the theory that it is caused by a simple decrease in activity. The disheartening cold weather can upset the delicate balance of activity needed to avoid pain from arthritis. Some believe that the effect is physiological. They think that the depressing winter time causes us to focus more on the pain. Others believe it’s a bit more delicate than that. A drop in weather and increase in humidity both cause changes in barometric pressure. When the pressure changes, it can cause our tendons, muscles, bones, and scar tissues to expand and contract, leading to pain in the affected areas.
How can I treat an arthritis flare?
Often, you can treat an arthritis flare with medication you already have in the house. Any anti-inflammatory will help the pain, with ibuprofen and aspirin being the go-to for many people. In the case of a severe flare, you may have to turn to prescription medications like tramadol. There are other home remedies, though none are quite this efficient. In the cold weather, hot packs may help.
In any case, you should see a doctor before taking action. In very extreme cases, you may need a joint replacement, and it’s better to know now rather than later. If the cold weather is starting to nip at your bones, remember to seek out some sort of activity for the winter, as prevention is often better than treatment.