Introduction: This guest article was written by Anca Smyth, who is currently a fourth year medical student at Queen’s University Belfast. She wrote an essay during her ‘special study component’ three week attachment in Altnagelvin hospital and later submitted it to the Irish Society for Rheumatology. Anca not only won the prestigious Bernard Connor Prize at the 2016 conference, but she was invited to present her paper to the Society. So congratulations to Anca and best wishes for the future! – Philip Gardiner
“When it comes to our health most of us are guilty of thinking that we are invincible. Imagine waking up one morning with excruciating pain, having stiff, swollen joints and weakness which markedly interfere with your ability to carry out the normal activities of daily living. To a rheumatoid arthritis (RA) sufferer such debilitating symptoms may constitute ‘a significant disease flare’, an episodic exacerbation of this chronic, symmetrical, small joint inflammatory condition. Or does it?
Unlike the ACR/EULAR classification criteria for RA  which is based on objective measurements of serological parameters, acute phase reactants, numbers and sites of swollen or tender joints and symptom duration, there has been no standard definition of what constitutes a RA flare or how it can be objectively assessed and classified according to severity. Apart from measuring the efficacy and safety of novel pharmacological agents used in the treatment of RA by means of randomised controlled clinical trials, a valid definition and classification of a flare would prove to be an invaluable tool in guiding clinical care and monitoring disease outcome.
When a patient is experiencing a flare, a significant increase in the disease activity so that it requires a change of treatment , there is often discrepancy in the interpretation of the severity of signs and symptoms between the doctor and the patient . This may lead to inappropriate treatment, patient dissatisfaction and non-adherence to therapeutic interventions [4, 5]. Such discordance is due to the heterogeneous nature of the patient experience during this acute episode, which not only affects objectively measured clinical parameters but also generates self-reported symptoms such as pain, weakness, sleeplessness or fatigue [6, 7]. From the patient’s perspective the experience of a flare is also about functional impairment, disability and social participation [8, 9] which interfere with the patient’s quality of life and psychological well-being.
There is also variation between RA sufferers regarding what constitutes a significant disease flare. Reasons for this include the fact that patients report the severity of a flare according to their baseline disease activity and previous experiences with the disease , thus what seems a severe flare to an early RA patient may be classified as a normal fluctuation of disease activity by someone who has been living with this disease for an extended period of time. Additional factors in defining a significant flare include the level of a patient’s tolerance to worsening of signs and symptoms, health beliefs and coping skills [11, 12].
Current methods of assessing RA patients include measuring the disease activity in 28 joints using the DAS28 score and evaluating physical disability by means of a Health Assessment Questionnaire (HAQ28) and patient’s global health status by employing a 10cm Visual Analogue Scale (VAS). However, none of these approaches are without flaws. Two of the main determinants of the patient’s global health are pain and fatigue , subjective symptoms which cannot be measured accurately and which are influenced by many factors including mental health status and co-morbidities . Considering the ACR/EULAR disease remission criteria of a score of 1 or less on the patient’s global assessment scale of 0-10 such targets may be difficult to achieve accounting for the fact that many RA patients suffer from depression  or chronic pain syndrome .
The HAQ tool, limited by its ‘ceiling effect’ due to lack of adequate sensitivity in detecting a worsening of disability towards its upper limits or assessing lower limb function  does not accurately evaluate the severity of a RA flare. The DAS 28 score, a weighted composite of the number of swollen joints, level of the inflammatory marker ESR (erythrocyte sedimentation rate) and patient global assessment score is currently employed in clinical practice to classify disease activity, guide therapeutic treatment and function as an outcome measure in the treat-to-target approach . Limitations of this approach include a misleadingly low DAS28 score if the flare predominantly affects the patient’s feet, which are not included in the DAS28 joint count, or if it is concentrated on a single joint, causing debilitating pain and rendering the patient unable to work. Conversely, a high DAS28 score based on a large number of swollen joints in the absence of pain or elevated ESR may initiate an unnecessary escalation in therapeutic treatment . Some studies have used the inverse of the improvement criteria based on the DAS28 score to assess the severity of a flare but such a correlation seems inappropriate .
Given the complexity of patient experiences and heterogeneity of assessment tools that affect the interpretation of a significant disease flare, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to monitoring a flare. In an era of demedicalisation, there is an emphasis on treating the individual in the community, with medical care providers offering evidence based patient education and counselling regarding management of flares or side-effects of medication in the form of leaflets, telephone consultation with various members of the multi-disciplinary team or telecare services for people to report and be advised on their flares . Such a model of care not only promotes self-efficacy and helps achieve an internal locus of control but it also increases accessibility and reduces travelling time for patients in the rural communities.
Since RA is a chronic condition, the patient may be the expert in monitoring their condition and self-management of a flare by means of non-pharmacological (such as exercise, bed rests, applying ice or heat packs or via complementary and alternative therapies) or pharmacological interventions (by increasing the dose of glucocorticoids, analgesics or non steroidal anti-inflammatory medication alongside a fixed-dose of disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs) seems to be the approach employed by most RA sufferers . There are times, however, when self-management of a flare is ineffective and the patient decides to seek medical help. Although the threshold at which such a decision is made is unknown, the doctor must adopt a holistic approach in assessing the patient and based on shared-decision making determine an appropriate change in treatment.
In conclusion, the concept of a significant disease flare in RA is complex, non-standardised and its interpretation depends on interplay between a patient’s physical and psychological parameters, previous disease experience and health beliefs. Monitoring of this acute episode should occur in the community, with health professionals providing ongoing patient education and counselling and facilitating timely review by the clinician when the patient seeks medical help.”
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