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Rheumatoid Arthritis Diagnosis

RA can begin very gradually, or it can strike quickly. The first symptoms are pain, swelling, and stiffness in the joints. The most commonly involved joints include hands, feet, wrists, elbows, and ankles, although other joints may also be involved. The joints are affected in a symmetrical fashion. This means that if the right wrist is involved, the left wrist is also involved. Patients frequently experience painful joint stiffness when they first get up in the morning, lasting for perhaps an hour. Over time, the joints become deformed. The joints may be difficult to straighten, and affected fingers and toes may be permanently bent (flexed). The hands and feet may curve outward in an abnormal way.

Many patients also notice increased fatigue, loss of appetite, weight loss, and sometimes fever. Rheumatoid nodules are bumps that appear under the skin around the joints and on the top of the arms and legs. These nodules can also occur in the tissue covering the outside of the lungs and lining the chest cavity (pleura), and in the tissue covering the brain and spinal cord (meninges). Lung involvement may cause shortness of breath and is seen more in men. Vasculitis (inflammation of the blood vessels) may interfere with blood circulation. This can result in irritated pits (ulcers) in the skin, tissue death (gangrene), and interference with nerve functioning that causes numbness and tingling.

Rheumatoid Arthritis Diagnosis - test

  • Rheumatoid Factor  This is the most useful diagnostic test because 80% of people with RA eventually show a high concentration of rheumatoid factor in their blood. Rheumatoid factor is an antibody produced against immunoglobulin G. (Antibodies are proteins the body manufactures to fight off foreign substances). However, since not all people with RA have rheumatoid factor, and because other diseases can test positive for it, this test by itself is not conclusive.
  • Sed Rate  the sed rate or ESR (erythrocyte sedimentation rate) measures how fast red blood cells (erythrocytes) fall to the bottom of a glass tube filled with the patient's blood. The higher the sed rate, the more inflammation the patient has. Elevated sed rates are usually found with RA, but they also occur with other conditions.
  • Hemocrit  A hemocrit measures of the volume of erythrocytes in the blood. Red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body via a pigment called hemoglobin. A low hemocrit means that a person has too few red cells in the blood, and therefore too little hemoglobin, resulting in an insufficient supply of oxygen to the cells. This is called anemia. Anemia is common with RA. Many other conditions, however, can also cause anemia.
  • Synovial fluid analysis  Synovial fluid is obtained through arthrocentesis. In this procedure fluid is withdrawn from a joint and analyzed. Active inflammation makes synovial fluid cloudy and abnormally thin, with higher than normal protein and white blood cells. Conditions other than RA can produce these abnormalities.
  • Citrulline antibody Citrulline antibody is present in most patients with rheumatoid arthritis. It is used in the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis when evaluating patients with unexplained joint inflammation. A test for citrulline antibodies is most helpful in looking for the cause of previously undiagnosed inflammatory arthritis when the traditional blood test for rheumatoid arthritis, rheumatoid factor, is not present. When the citrulline antibody is found in a patient's blood, there is a 90-95% likelihood that the patient has rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Antinuclear Antibodies (ANA)  An antinuclear antibody (ANA) test measures the amount and pattern of antibodies in your blood that work against your own body (autoimmune).
  • C-Reactive Protein (CRP) This is a type of protein that shows up in your blood during episodes of acute inflammation or infection. A high result serves as a general indication of acute inflammation. It must be noted that even in known cases of inflammatory disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, a low CRP level is possible, and is not indicative of no inflammation.
  • Anti-CCP antibodies  Anti-CCP antibodies are potentially important surrogate markers for diagnosis and prognosis in rheumatoid arthritis (RA), because they:
    • are as sensitive as, and more specific than, IgM rheumatoid factors (RF) in early and fully established disease
    • may predict the eventual development into RA when found in undifferentiated arthritis
    • are a marker of erosive disease in RA
    • may be detected in healthy individuals years before onset of clinical RA
  • Radiology  X-rays can reveal cartilage damage that causes joint space narrowing. They can also show bone erosion and localized osteoporosis. In the early stages of RA, x-rays are not very useful since joint damage is usually not present. When several joints are involved, however, a physician may elect to x-ray one joint (usually hands) as a baseline for comparison over time.

More detailed information about Rheumatoid Arthritis Diagnosis

There are no tests available that can absolutely diagnose RA. Instead, a number of tests exist that can suggest the diagnosis of RA. Blood tests include a special test of red blood cells (called erythrocyte sedimentation rate), which is positive in nearly 100% of patients with RA. However, this test is also positive in a variety of other diseases. Tests for anemia are usually positive in patients with RA, but can also be positive in many other unrelated diseases. Rheumatoid factor is an autoantibody found in about 66% of patients with RA. However, it is also found in about 5% of all healthy people and in 10-20% of healthy people over the age of 65. Rheumatoid factor is also positive in a large number of other autoimmune diseases and other infectious diseases.

A long, thin needle can be inserted into a synovial joint to withdraw a sample of the synovial fluid for examination. In RA, this fluid has certain characteristics that indicate active inflammation. The fluid will be cloudy, relatively thinner than usual, with increased protein and decreased or normal glucose. It will also contain a higher than normal number of white blood cells. While these findings suggest inflammatory arthritis, they are not specific to RA.

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Arthritis can develop as a result of an infection. For example, bacteria that cause gonorrhea or Lyme disease can cause arthritis. Infectious arthritis can cause serious damage, but usually clears up completely with antibiotics. Scleroderma is a systemic disease that involves the skin, but may include problems with blood vessels, joints, and internal organs. Fibromyalgia syndrome is soft-tissue rheumatism that doesn't lead to joint deformity, but affects an estimated 5 million Americans, mostly women. The approximate number of cases in the United States of some common forms of arthritis. is an informational out reach of the Consumer Health Information Network. It is our goal to provide up to date information about arthritis and other inflammatory and bone conditions in a easy to understand format.

Where we get our information.

Most of the information in the site is compiled by editors from information provided by the National Institutes of Health. We are in the process of updating our pages. In the past we have not made reference to the source for information provide by our editors. In the next few weeks we hope to have all our pages marked as to the source.

We have included information from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Pages that uses information from this source are so acknowledged.

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Updates of Pages.

Not all of our pages have a date as to the last update. We are in the processes of reviewing all our pages and as we do we include a reference as to when the page was updated. This web site was first published in January of 2003. All pages in the site were created at sometime during or after that time.