Rheumatoid arthritis can cause debilitating symptoms that affect someone’s daily life. People should consider going to the hospital or speaking with a doctor if they experience swelling and joint pain, if their symptoms do not improve, or if their treatment is not working as it should.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory and autoimmune disease. It occurs when a person‘s immune system mistakenly attacks the cells of the tissues lining the joints, causing pain and joint stiffness. The condition can also affect other parts of the body, including the eyes and lungs, and may restrict the ability to move freely.

Health experts are not completely sure what causes a person‘s immune system to attack their joint tissues. Many believe genetic and environmental factors, such as a family history of RA and smoking tobacco, may play a role.

In this article, we will discuss when to see a primary care provider (PCP) or rheumatologist for health concerns related to RA. We will also discuss how to treat and manage RA flare-ups.

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Determining how and when to seek medical attention can be a challenge for many people, especially those with symptoms that can cause severe complications.

People with RA often need medical care to treat and manage their condition. RA causes symptoms, including:

  • stiffness in multiple joints
  • pain in multiple joints
  • swelling and tenderness in multiple joints
  • fever
  • weakness
  • weight loss
  • experiencing the same symptoms on both sides of the body
  • movement restriction
  • joint deformity
  • symptoms of infections, such as the flu

These symptoms provide clues that a person may have RA. Individuals who experience them should consider speaking with a PCP. If the means of contact are virtual, a doctor might suggest an in-person visit to the hospital for a physical examination.

If they have not received a diagnosis for their symptoms prior to the consultation, the doctor may run some tests to determine the cause of their symptoms. The doctor may refer them to a rheumatologist if their test results show that they have RA. A rheumatologist is a doctor who specializes in chronic autoimmune conditions that cause inflammation.

RA can cause symptoms and complications that can lower a person‘s quality of life. However, the symptoms are not always severe. With RA, there are periods when symptoms are milder, which people call “remission,” and times when symptoms worsen, which people call “flares” or “flare-ups.”

People with RA should consider seeking urgent care in the event that:

  • their joints become swollen and red
  • they experience a rash accompanied by a high fever
  • they have sudden, severe abdominal pain
  • they experience sudden pain in the spinal cord area, which could be a sign of a vertebral fracture
  • they experience a severe RA flare

Emergency rooms focus on treating sudden, severe, and life threatening conditions. Reasons people visit the ER include:

  • severe chest pain
  • stroke symptoms, such as difficulty speaking, loss of balance, and weakness on one side of the body
  • accidents and life threatening injuries
  • severe burns

RA does not usually require a visit to the ER. However, there are times when the condition may cause life threatening events, requiring a visit to the ER. For instance, RA can carry with it a higher risk of serious infections, including bloodstream, bacterial, and respiratory infections, which may require emergency treatments.

A type of bacterial infection, called septic arthritis, is one of the causes of disability in the United States and one of the reasons people visit the ER. People with RA are at an increased risk of developing this condition.

The medications used for treating RA can also cause severe complications. For instance, the medication rituximab (Rituxan) may increase the risk of developing progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML), a disease that attacks part of the brain, leading to severe neurological disabilities.

Doctors often prescribe medications to treat RA flares and maintain remission. Examples of such medications include:

RA has no cure, but these medications can help treat and suppress the flares.

Arthritis flares may resolve on their own, depending on the cause and severity.

Symptoms, such as colds, may resolve on their own, especially when the affected individual applies at-home remedies, such as getting enough rest, applying ice, and eating foods that help boost the immune system.

Along with prescribing medications, doctors sometimes offer tips that may help people manage arthritis flares. The following may help calm arthritis flares:

  • reducing activity levels and getting enough rest
  • trying low intensity exercises to prevent muscle stiffness
  • using hot or cold packs on the joints to relieve pain, swelling, and stiffness
  • avoiding foods that may trigger anti-inflammatory reactions, such as ultra-processed foods and alcohol
  • staying away from allergens
  • meditating
  • massage therapy to help loosen and soothe stiff joints
  • taking care of one’s mental health because stress and other psychological factors can trigger arthritis flares.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic, progressive medical condition that can affect different parts of the body, particularly the joints.

The symptoms often come and go and can worsen. People should consider speaking with a healthcare professional if their symptoms worsen, do not get better with medications or lifestyle treatments, or if their current treatment does not seem to be working.