What is Involved in a Rheumatoid Arthritis Diagnosis?

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  • Written By: Vicki Watson
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 07 October 2018
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Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory disease where the patient’s own immune system attacks and destroys his or her joints, causing joint pain and inflammation. Experts estimate that 0.8 percent of people worldwide are affected by the disease, with women twice as likely as men to develop the illness. Several factors are involved with determining a rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis, including determining whether the patient has a family history of the disease, physical examinations, assessing the patient’s symptoms and laboratory testing. Several tests are required, because there is no single laboratory test that can independently give a definitive diagnosis. Patients should be aware that diagnosing RA can be difficult and might take time to achieve.

Doctors will examine the patient to consider the level of joint damage and the progression of joint involvement over time when determining a rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis. Laboratory tests include checking the erythrocyte sedimentation rates and C-reactive protein levels to see whether the patient has a positive rheumatoid factor. Doctors also will perform X-rays to evaluate the destruction level of the bone and joints in the areas involved.


In addition to laboratory testing, doctors refer to a list of criteria, determining whether at least four items on the list are present for a minimum of six weeks, to help reach a rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis. For instance, upon waking in the morning, RA sufferers commonly experience significant stiffness that lasts for at least one hour. Other common symptoms on this list include swelling around three or more joints at the same time; swelling in the wrists, hands or fingers; and hard lumps in the skin called rheumatoid nodules. Additionally, RA sufferers often experience symmetric arthritis, or simultaneous pain on both sides of the body. For instance, if the patient has pain in the left wrist, he or she is likely to experience pain in the right wrist as well.

It could take months to reach a definitive rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis. Patients can assist doctors in finding an RA diagnosis, however, by documenting their symptoms. For instance, keeping a log of symptoms as they appear, including the frequency and dates and time of day that they appear, might provide the doctors with useful information.

Finding a rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis and developing treatment for the disease as early as possible increases the chances of preventing significant joint damage. When left untreated, the disease leaves 20-30 percent of RA sufferers permanently disabled. Working closely with rheumatologists might help patients avoid this fate.



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