How Is a Rheumatoid Arthritis Diagnosis Made?
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic, autoimmune disorder in which the joints in the body become inflamed. The body mistakes certain tissues as foreign and attacks them, leading to inflammation, significant pain, and possibly deformed joints.
Rheumatoid arthritis normally affects the hands and feet, but it can also affect organs and other areas of the body.
Symptoms of RA
While the symptoms and severity of rheumatoid arthritis vary from person to person, many report pain or stiffness in the hands and wrists, especially in the morning. Joints are usually swollen and tender or boggy, and small nodules of tissue can be felt under the skin on the arm. For some, fever and exhaustion are common.
The symptoms aren’t always consistent, however. Some people will go through periods where they have no symptoms, followed by “flares” or periods of intense symptoms.
There is no single definitive test to confirm a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis. Instead, your care provider will make a diagnosis based on your symptoms, history, and a physical exam.
During the exam, your doctor will check your joints, looking for any tenderness, swelling, redness or warmth. Your doctor will also check your reflexes and muscle strength because people with rheumatoid arthritis often experience weakness in the muscles around the affected area.
Your doctor may order a blood test as well if rheumatoid arthritis is suspected. In some individuals with rheumatoid arthritis, there is an increased erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) when there is inflammation. A blood test can also reveal if your blood has the rheumatoid factor, anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide (anti-CCP) antibodies, and reactive protein (CRP).
Your doctor may also order an X-ray of the areas that are affected by rheumatoid arthritis. While the X-ray may aid in the diagnosis, your care provider may order the test to track your rheumatoid arthritis over time. Showing the progression of the disease and the affect it has on your joints is key to effective management and treatment of the condition.
Referral to a Specialist
Your primary care physician can usually diagnose rheumatoid arthritis based on a physical examination and other tests. However, the disease is not always easy to diagnose in the early stages. In addition, some of the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis mimic symptoms found in other diseases. Your doctor may refer you to a rheumatologist, or a doctor that specializes in diagnosing and treating patients with rheumatoid arthritis.
When to Call a Doctor
If you suspect that you have rheumatoid arthritis, you should schedule an appointment with your primary care physician. If you have prolonged pain, stiffness in your joints, especially in the morning, that isn’t relieved, contact your doctor. Some individuals report that these symptoms are worse after an illness.
Preparing for the Appointment
If you have already made an appointment, come prepared. Be ready to describe your symptoms, your health history, and your family’s health history. Your physician will probably ask you when your symptoms began and how long they have lasted. Your physician will also want to know which joints are affected, and how your symptoms affect your daily life.
- Rindfleisch, J. A. (n.d.). Diagnosis and Management of Rheumatoid Arthritis - American Family Physician. Home -- American Academy of Family Physicians. Retrieved October 22, 2013, from http://www.aafp.org/afp/2005/0915/p1037.html
- Rheumatoid arthritis - MayoClinic.com. (n.d.). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved October 22, 2013, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/rheumatoid-arthritis/DS00020