Flaring

For the uninitiated, flares are what we chronic condition people call the times our condition (or conditions) decides to remind us it exists, usually in no uncertain terms.

Barb, who, like me, is a complex comorbid patient including psoriatic arthritis, sums up flares succinctly!

The unjoys! The phrase “Oh the joys!” is in common usage, the implication being something is not actually so joyful. But I love this new word. For me, it hits a home run.

I had one yesterday. While the experience is fresh in my mind, I’m writing about it. We tend to get used to them, they become just part of our new way of life, while healthy people can find the flares of others confronting.

If you are friend, family or colleague of a chronic condition person, or you are new to this chronic world, hopefully I provide some insight to “what happens”. Everyone is different, what I describe is specific to me, my conditions and my current circumstances, but should give readers a feel for flares generally. Flares can be long or short: once my right wrist flared for about eight hours, then was fine. No rhyme nor reason.

Yesterday’s flare was different. For a start, it was whole body, not just one joint.

I now realise it started on Wednesday. I was driving to the office and my upper arms were sore when dressing and driving. Sore upper arms usually means shoulder inflammation. Nothing too bad, but I did take panadol osteo to see me through the day. Driving home from the office that night I felt nauseous and sleepy and nearly drove through a red light. Not good.

Thursday was a little worse, more areas were sore. I was WFH that day, so I managed. Even my total knee replacement scar felt tight, stretched and tingly. This was a new thing. The joints at the base of my thumbs were sore. My right (unoperated) knee was painful. My right hip was grumpy. You don’t need the whole list!

I woke up Friday morning in a full flare. Not only did I have many sore bits, I had no energy. I had to work, because…. deadlines. At least I was working from home though. No meetings scheduled. I certainly would not have gone into the office, but I felt I could manage the most important tasks in solitude at home. I resorted to panadol osteo and a stronger pain med to get me through the day – I hoped.

Yesterday is the first time ever I have worked in my dressing gown. I am the sort that puts on the lippy and mascara every day, working from home or not. For me to not even get out of my dressing gown is an indication of how crap I was feeling. Healthy people reading this may be horrified at this admission – chronic people will be nodding their heads and thinking, “Oh, yes, know that feeling well.” I did 1,172 steps for the day, between my office and my kitchen mostly.

It is very hard to explain how awful it actually feels. I liken it to possibly feeling as if you have run a marathon – at least that is how I envisage a marathon runner may feel at the finish line. It is only the start of the day, but you feel done already. Like, literally, DONE! That’s before any pain is taken into account. Or maybe the old “run over by a truck” phrase is applicable.

I did manage to get through the work day, almost – I finished slightly early. I doubt my productivity was any way close to normal, but I got some important deadlines met. I will probably work a few hours this weekend to catch up on other tasks. If at all possible DO NOT DO THIS! If you are flaring, REST. I’m setting a bad example here, I know that – but my example also underlines the fact sometimes we are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

After I finished work I sat in an armchair and my lumber spine decided to be excruciating. It had, I’ll admit, been building as the day wore on, now it was awful. No idea why – my lumbar spine hasn’t been a problem since 2017 (except for changing the bed linen, that irritates it). Pain medication was required, most definitely. Then, I got stomach pains. My eyes were dry and irritable. Like, what next?

This morning I woke up feeling absolutely fine! Made myself a lovely cinnamon rolled oats and pink lady apple breakfast, have been for a 1.6 kilometre walk, had a coffee at my local café. After lunch I went to the gym for a strength training session. The only slightly sore bits are the joint at the base of my right little finger and only if I hyperextend it, plus my soon-to-be-operated on toes are a bit off (but that’s understandable). I have energy, I feel perfectly fine.

The flare is over, just like that. Gone.

What causes flares when we are on a stable medication that is working and we are doing all the right things (eating properly and sleeping, hydrating, exercise)?

I will never forget my rheumatologist saying to me in late 2014, “Get the stress out of your life.” Great advice, but easier said than done. While the evidence is pretty conclusive that stress exacerbates many conditions and causes flares, we still have to live life! Earn money to pay the bills.

If I stand back and look at what has been happening in my life during the last few weeks there are several factors that alone may not be a problem, but the culmination of the stress of each has resulted in this flare. If you are flaring more than usual, take a look at everything that is going on in your life in the time period preceding the flare. In my case, right at the moment:

  • Pending surgery, with a late change of surgeon
  • Late change of the actual surgery procedure (extra stuff)
  • Teaching a relief staff member to do my role while still doing my role
  • Usual work deadlines
  • Fitting extra pre-op tests into my schedule
  • Mountain of pre-op paperwork
  • Lack of exercise due to work hours and therefore internal battery depletion
  • 42 minute phone call to Medicare – even things like that add to the stress load
  • I’d let my dietary protein drop while distracted with the above concerns

There is stress related to each of the above. Any one item alone is probably not an issue: add them all up and the body goes “What are you doing to me????”

Realistically we can’t avoid these life stressors. We can’t necessarily spread them out over time to minimise the impact on us, sometimes they just all come together. I haven’t really flared for years. You might ask what about the knee surgery, did I flare then? No, but the list was smaller then. No late change of surgeon, no late change of proposed procedure, I wasn’t working at the time so no work-related pressures. I was getting exercise. Sure, I was unemployed and THAT alone is hugely stressful, but I was able to mentally put that on the top shelf out of sight while I concentrated on the knee. I knew the knee rectification was important in order to be able to get a job – I prioritised.

There is no way I could have avoided the culmination of the above stressors, it is just the way life has played out over the last week. I saw the new surgeon on Thursday, had to digest his unexpected news about what needed to be done, fit in an MRI on the Saturday, phone consult and decision on Tuesday, flare started Wednesday, Friday full conflagration.

Surprised I feel so fantastic today after feeling SO bad yesterday. It really is like getting into a brand new car: today I am driving a brand new car! Yet that is what flares can be like and why it can be hard for healthy people to understand or, worst still, easy for assumptions to be made about “it is all in your mind”. No, it isn’t: it is what happens physically.

If you are friend, family or colleague of a chronic person, including healthy looking chronic people, please be compassionate. Be supportive. We don’t like these flares, we don’t have them to inconvenience others!

If you are a chronic condition person, please share any advice or your experiences in the comments.

Published by

Robyn Dunphy

I offer exercise guidance to those with chronic medical conditions where exercise is beneficial.

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