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How to Manage Arthritis Flare-Ups, According to an Orthopedic Surgeon

Expert explains what to know about arthritis flare-ups and how to prevent them. 
FACT CHECKED BY Alek Korab

Arthritis is a common painful disorder that causes tenderness and swelling of the joints. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "In the United States, 24% of all adults, or 58.5 million people, have arthritis. It is a leading cause of work disability, with annual costs for medical care and lost earnings of $303.5 billion." Living with arthritis can be a struggle, but there are things that can help. Dr. Alexander Van der Ven, orthopedic surgeon at Baptist Health Orthopedic Care explains to Eat This, Not That! Health how to cope with an arthritis flare-up and how the pandemic makes flare-ups more susceptible. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.

1

What is Arthritis?

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Dr. Van der Ven states, "By definition, arthritis means "disease or inflammation of a joint." Arthritis is typically not a static disease. It is an episodic, ever-changing, dynamic and progressive disease. It is characterized by the eventual breakdown of the joint. It's an accumulation of episodic events. Flare-ups are when we basically see an increased amount of irritation to the joint, which is caused by both swelling and thickening of the joint or stiffness of the joint. Most people feel some pain and so these flare-ups are often what brings people to the doctor. A lot of people know they have arthritis, but it's the flare-ups that are the things that can disable patients. And so that's usually when someone will seek medical help."

2

Signs You Have Arthritis

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"The first symptom is typically pain," says Dr. Van der Ven. "Other signs include swelling, loss of range or motion, stiffness and/or loss of function or inability to do daily activities, play sports, etc."

3

What Causes Flare-Ups?

Senior lady standing on her knee and trying to pick up her groceries after falling down while her worried husband running to her in the background
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According to Dr. Van der Ven, "There is usually a trigger. Sometimes it can be a small injury, other times a larger event. Sometimes it's a misstep or a fall. There can also be inflammatory triggers in someone's life based on their diet and life stresses. The more chronically diseased a joint is, the more susceptible it is to a flare-up."

4

How Arthritis Flare-Ups Can Affect Daily Life

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Dr. Van der Ven explains, "The flare-up might entail more pain, swelling, and stiffness. It can have an effect on your daily activities, making it harder for you to move. In some cases, it can reduce quality of life and prevent an individual from going to work and taking part in physical activity."

5

The Pandemic and Flare-Ups

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According to Dr. Van der Ven, "The pandemic has made us even more susceptible to flare-ups, as our regular "routines" have been thrown off. We're not seeing the kind of the weekend warrior injuries that we used to because people aren't participating in those types of events. But, on the other hand, people are becoming much more sedentary now. They're not maintaining their bodies, and this is putting them at risk for these flare-ups."

6

How to Help Prevent a Flare-Up

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"Prevention is the best medicine against these flare-ups, which can last for days or weeks (see ways below), says Dr. Van der Ven. "Treatment is going to be over-the-counter non-steroidal, anti-inflammatories – and only if it is medically safe for you to take these –  or visits to a physical therapist. Sometimes, these flare-ups might require things like a brace or temporary immobilization. Sometimes, drainage of fluids or an injection of the joint is necessary, or other more powerful types of medications."

7

Exercise

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Dr. Van der Ven shares, "The first discussion I have with every single person who walks through the door is, "What do you do for exercise? What do you do for fitness?" If they say they don't do anything – no matter what they need, we send them to the gym or we send them to a trainer or to a physical therapist. We give them instructions. We basically try to empower them. It's a matter of giving them confidence. We have to redirect their misconceptions or clarify what maybe somebody once told them. Maybe they played a sport and then they hurt their knee, and they're so afraid that they think that it's going to set them back again. But we do know that people with arthritis who exercise feel better than people with arthritis who don't exercise. That is universally accepted and regular exercise is critical to treating your symptoms."

8

Maintain Your Weight

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"The most important factor is going to be maintaining your weight," Dr. Van der Ven emphasizes. "We know that people who are obese have more inflammation. They call these cytokines and adipokines, which are inflammatory markers that are released by fat cells. And the more overweight you are, the more inflammation you generate, which also causes the progression of arthritis. So, we know that people who keep their weight under control will have less inflammation in their body."

9

Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Rich Diet

holding plant-based bowl with veggies, chickpeas, tomatoes, chia seeds, and lemon
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Dr. Van der Ven explains, "Certain foods are going to trigger inflammation. Avoid foods that have a high inflammatory component, such as a lot of animal products and processed foods, which seem to cause more inflammation in the body. Focus on more natural plant-based foods to promote less inflammation."

10

Work to Prevent Injuries

runner with athletic body wearing black running shoes, sitting on steps on concrete stair, clutching injured knee in excruciating pain
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"You don't want to twist your knee the wrong way or have a misstep," Dr. Van der Ven states, "Injury prevention is done through physical fitness, whether it's visits to a physical therapist or a personal trainer. The most important thing with fitness is to cross-train — not doing the same exercise over and over again. You need to change your routine or you will get an overuse injury. Even walking will eventually create overuse injuries. You need to try a combination of things that will raise your metabolic rate. You need to increase your flexibility. You need to work on your core strength. You should continue to change your exercise routine so that you avoid those overuse injuries. It's really important."

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more
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