What Is an RA Flare?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: February 2024

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic disease. This means it is a long-term illness that requires ongoing care. RA can affect different parts of the body. It often impacts the joints, making them feel painful and stiff.1

People with RA have times when their joints feel good and other times when symptoms like swelling and pain lower their quality of life. These periods of worse symptoms are called flares.2

What does an RA flare feel like?

During an RA flare, people may feel like the drugs they usually take are not working. RA flares feel different for different people. Common symptoms include:1,2

  • Pain
  • Stiffness
  • Fatigue
  • Redness
  • Mental fogginess
  • Swollen joints
  • Tender joints

Some people may have flares more often and have worse symptoms than others. Some flares last a few days. Others may go on for a few weeks or months. Studies have found that almost 80 percent of flares last less than 3 days. The rest last more than 3 days.2-5

What causes an RA flare?

There are two main types of RA flares based on what causes them:2,3

  • Predictable – These flares have known causes. For example, a person might overdo it by exercising or doing housework. Or they might sleep badly or feel stressed. The next day, their joints feel stiff and swollen.
  • Unpredictable – With these flares, the causes are uncertain. It is not clear why the person’s symptoms got worse.

Predictable flares usually resolve on their own with time, but unpredictable flares might not get better on their own.2,3

What is the impact of an RA flare?

An RA flare can affect many areas of a person’s life, such as:1,2

  • Daily functioning
  • Participation in activities
  • Self-management
  • Emotional well-being
  • Ability to sleep

Longer flares tend to have a greater effect on a person’s ability to be physically active. They may also increase a person’s risk of heart disease.2-5

How do doctors diagnose an RA flare?

There is no official definition of an RA flare. But doctors agree that a flare involves a worsening of RA symptoms. A flare often means these symptoms are intense enough to require starting or changing therapy.4,5

Your doctor may use certain clinical tools to find out whether you are having a flare. These can include:4,5

  • Lab tests
  • Questionnaires
  • Counts of swollen and tender joints
  • Imaging tests of your joints

How are RA flares treated?

With proper care, flares usually pass. The sooner you begin treating a flare, the sooner you will begin to feel better. You can try to relieve your symptoms with ice, heat, or ibuprofen. If your symptoms do not respond, talk to your doctor. They may adjust your regular RA drugs.1,3,5

Your doctor also may prescribe a steroid drug, like prednisone. Steroids can reduce the inflammation that occurs during a flare. Reducing the inflammation will help limit damage to your joints, bones, and cartilage. It can also help lower your risk of heart disease.1,3,5

By listening to your body, you can spot a flare when it starts. Acting early will help ensure better outcomes.1,3,5

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