An osteoarthritis flare-up is a sudden increase in joint pain and other symptoms. Some medications, lifestyle changes, and home remedies may help you prevent and manage flare-ups.

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease that affects cartilage, which is the tissue that protects your bones and cushions your joints.

Sometimes, you may experience periods when your symptoms worsen or reappear, known as flare-ups.

A flare-up may appear suddenly and be triggered by various factors. However, with appropriate management, flare-ups are usually temporary.

Keep reading to learn more about the symptoms, triggers, and prevention methods for osteoarthritis flare-ups.

Symptoms of an osteoarthritis flare-up may include:

It’s important to note that everyone will experience osteoarthritis flare-ups differently. For example, you may experience swelling of the affected joint, while others don’t.

Learn more about the symptoms of osteoarthritis.

The exact cause of osteoarthritis isn’t yet known, and it’s not always clear why a flare-up happens.

However, researchers have identified several physical, environmental, and psychological risk factors that may increase your risk of experiencing flare-ups. These may include:

  • prolonged physical activity, such as standing, kneeling, and squatting
  • excessively or repeatedly using a joint
  • having an injury to the affected joint
  • experiencing stress, anxiety, depression, and irritability
  • changing medications
  • experiencing weather changes, such as damp weather or a drop in barometric pressure

Some internal factors caused by disease progression may also lead to osteoarthritis flare-ups.

For example, osteoarthritis progressively damages cartilage. As this breaks down, friction may occur between the bones, leading to symptom flare-ups.

Similarly, osteophytes, or bone spurs, may develop with osteoarthritis. As they grow, they can cause a flare-up of symptoms. Sometimes, pieces of bone or cartilage can come loose and cause more pain and inflammation.

An osteoarthritis flare-up is different from a rheumatoid arthritis (RA) flare. RA is a separate condition. It affects the immune system, which impacts the whole body. In osteoarthritis, symptoms occur mainly in the affected joint.

Learn more about the causes of osteoarthritis.

Treatment for osteoarthritis flare-ups may depend on several factors, such as:

  • the severity of your condition
  • your current treatment plan
  • if you have any underlying health conditions

A healthcare professional may recommend a combination of the following treatments to help reduce flare-ups:

If you have advanced osteoarthritis, a doctor may recommend joint replacement surgery. This may be the most definitive way to prevent osteoarthritis flare-ups.

Learn more about treatments for osteoarthritis.

Joint damage caused by osteoarthritis is irreversible, but preventive measures can help minimize your risk of flare-ups and long-term damage.

Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the most important aspects of osteoarthritis prevention.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests doing low impact physical activity for at least 150 minutes each week. This could help improve your strength, cardiovascular health, and joint mobility.

Some exercises may include:

Working with a doctor is another key part of slowing the progression of osteoarthritis and preventing flare-ups. They could help you develop a management plan for your specific type of osteoarthritis.

You may not need to see a doctor every time you experience a flare-up.

However, if pain and other symptoms last beyond a few days, you may want to make an appointment. A doctor will perform a physical examination and medical history to investigate any symptoms that seem to be progressing.

They may also order imaging tests like X-ray and MRI to get a better look at what’s happening inside the affected joint. This could help them identify osteophytes, degenerated cartilage, or other potential causes of flare-ups.

If the results suggest disease progression, the doctor could adjust your treatment plan to take these into account.

Tracking flares through a journal or app can help you and a doctor monitor the progression of your condition. The information you collect can help inform the decisions you make about treatment.

A 2022 review found that osteoarthritis flare-ups may last between 3–8 days on average.

However, it’s hard to determine the duration of flare-ups, as this will vary greatly for each person. For some, they may last a few hours, while others may experience flare-ups for weeks.

What does an osteoarthritis flare feel like?

Osteoarthritis flare-ups are when your symptoms worsen or reappear. You may experience increased pain, stiffness, and inflammation in the affected joint.

Do you feel unwell with osteoarthritis?

Symptoms of osteoarthritis could impact your sleep, increase stress levels, and cause fatigue.

An osteoarthritis flare-up is temporary and symptoms usually improve within a few days. Various options can help you manage a flare-up and reduce its impact on your daily life.

If osteoarthritis flare-ups are affecting your mobility and quality of life, speak to a doctor about the treatment options available to you.