An osteoarthritis flare-up is a sudden increase in symptoms. Triggers include environmental stress, environmental changes, and more. How long an osteoarthritis flare-up lasts can vary, but they are typically temporary.

In healthy joints, cartilage allows bones to move smoothly. However, osteoarthritis causes the cartilage to wear away and the bones to rub together, leading to pain and stiffness.

A flare-up can result from several factors, including:

  • injury
  • stress
  • changes in the weather

This article looks at what causes osteoarthritis flare-ups and how to treat and prevent them.

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An osteoarthritis flare-up leads to a sudden increase in symptoms. These symptoms may include:

  • joint pain
  • swelling
  • stiffness in the morning
  • a reduced range of motion in a joint
  • fatigue
  • difficulty sleeping due to pain

In rheumatoid arthritis, an immune response can trigger symptoms due to inflammation. In the past, doctors did not link osteoarthritis with inflammation. However, some evidence now suggests that inflammation may play a role. Factors that lead to inflammation may therefore contribute to a flare-up. That said, there may be other reasons.

According to the Arthritis Foundation, when symptoms of osteoarthritis worsen, it is not always easy to know if this is a flare-up or if further damage has occurred.

Some reasons that symptoms might worsen include:

  • overdoing an activity or carrying out repetitive motions
  • trauma to the joint
  • the development of bone spurs
  • stress
  • cold weather or a change in barometric pressure
  • an infection
  • weight gain

Although dietary factors may not trigger an osteoarthritis flare-up, choosing foods that reduce inflammation may help manage the symptoms and boost a person’s overall health.

Injury to the joint

Injury or trauma to the joint can worsen osteoarthritis symptoms. Joint injuries can result from:

  • repetitive motions
  • exercising the joint too much
  • a fall or knock to the joint

Injuries cause osteoarthritis flare-ups when they damage the cartilage, bone, or both. Injuries that change the mechanics of the joint, leading to further deterioration, can also give rise to flare-ups.

Further breakdown of the joint

Osteoarthritis involves a breakdown of joint cartilage. This happens naturally with age, but an injury or another form of physical stress can accelerate the process.

When cartilage breaks down, it causes the bones of the joint to rub together, leading to pain.

As cartilage deteriorates, bone spurs can start to appear. Known as osteophytes, these are small bony protrusions that can irritate the joint and worsen pain.

Emotional stress

Many people experience physical symptoms when they have high levels of emotional stress.

In people with osteoarthritis, stress can exacerbate joint pain. This can increase stress and make sleeping difficult, which can further increase sensitivity to pain.

The findings of a study from 2010 indicate that people with osteoarthritis may be likely to have mood-related disorders linked to stress, such as anxiety and depression.

Environmental changes

Changes in weather can also aggravate arthritic joints.

Many people find that their symptoms worsen when the weather is cold or when there is a sudden drop in barometric pressure.

However, scientists do not know why this happens or if the weather changes actually cause this increase in pain.

Other health conditions

Osteoarthritis may flare up after a person’s health status changes. For example, this may occur due to an infection.

Sudden or excessive weight gain can also cause symptoms to flare up because additional weight adds pressure to the joints. Excess weight can be especially problematic when osteoarthritis affects the hips, knees, or spine.


Some dietary choices can increase the risk of inflammation and lead to weight gain.

Some foods and ingredients that may trigger inflammation include:

  • processed foods
  • added sugar and refined carbohydrates
  • saturated and trans fats
  • alcohol
  • artificial flavorings, such as monosodium glutamate and aspartame

Making healthy dietary choices can also help a person maintain a moderate weight and prevent adding pressure to damaged joints.

What is an anti-inflammatory diet? Find out here.

A person can treat an osteoarthritis flare-up with medication, lifestyle changes, and home remedies. A combination of the following methods may be necessary.

Medication and medical treatment

Over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications can relieve osteoarthritis symptoms.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help reduce arthritis symptoms.

Options available as OTC drugs include:

NSAIDs are a short-term solution for joint pain. If a person takes them for long periods of time, they can cause stomach bleeding.

If osteoarthritis symptoms are more serious, a doctor may prescribe stronger medications. These include narcotics, prescription-strength NSAIDs, and corticosteroid injections.

In severe cases, joint replacement surgery may be necessary to resolve symptoms.

Hot and cold therapy

Applying a heating pad or an ice pack can reduce pain and stiffness in the joints. Some people see the best results when they alternate between hot and cold therapy.

People should avoid applying ice packs directly to the skin, as this can cause damage. They should cover these with a cloth or towel first.

Stress management

People with osteoarthritis may have a higher risk of depression and anxiety, both of which can involve stress. Managing stress can help reduce pain during flare-ups and minimize their frequency.

Some tips for managing stress include:

Balance rest and activity

It is important to rest after periods of activity, and resting can be beneficial during an osteoarthritis flare-up. However, too much of either may worsen or aggravate a person’s pain.

Some light activities that may help include:

The American College of Rheumatology and the Arthritis Foundation strongly recommend tai chi for people with osteoarthritis of the knee or hip. They add that yoga may also help.

Assistive devices

Certain devices can reduce stress on the joints and make life easier for people with arthritis.

Helpful products may include jar openers, adaptive cutlery, grabbing devices, and dressing aids.

Although it is not always necessary to contact a doctor during an osteoarthritis flare-up, symptoms that persist for more than a few days may need medical treatment.

The doctor may request imaging tests, such as X-rays or MRI scans, to check for changes to joints and other damage. They will likely recommend medications to treat pain.

If necessary, the doctor may suggest additional treatments to address triggers, such as CBT for stress.

Osteoarthritis flare-ups are not always preventable, but some strategies can help minimize risk.

For example, people with osteoarthritis may find the following tips helpful:

  • Maintain a moderate weight by making healthy dietary choices and getting plenty of exercise.
  • Reduce stress through meditation, mindfulness, and deep breathing exercises.
  • Take measures to get enough sleep.
  • Engage in regular exercise to strengthen the bones, lubricate the joints, and increase muscle mass.
  • Wear supportive braces to help protect and stabilize the joints.
  • Use assistive devices to reduce stress on the joints.

Some foods and beverages that may help prevent inflammation include:

Learn more about how diet can help manage osteoarthritis here.

Osteoarthritis is a progressive condition. Symptoms can worsen over time or during a flare-up. A flare-up is usually temporary. Medications and lifestyle options can often help manage them when they occur.

Maintaining a moderate weight, getting regular exercise, and consuming a varied diet can help prevent damage from worsening and flare-ups from occurring.