How is Rheumatoid Arthritis Diagnosed? Part 1

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Why is it so hard to diagnose Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid Arthritis is a mystery even to doctors. The diagnosis is a subjective process even though many of the symptoms are clearly measurable. Every book or article I read says that it is difficult to diagnose. Why?

It is only in recent years this disease actually has a name and any identity at all. Rheumatoid Arthritis has never had a single definitive test to prove diagnosis. It was in 1987 that the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) adopted 7 guidelines, created by a committee, which are used in the clinical diagnosis of RA.

While there are seven criteria on the list, rheumatologists may diagnose RA if only four of them are present. They include

  1. symmetrical presentation of arthritis
  2. arthritis of the fingers, wrists and hands
  3. positive Rheumatoid factor blood test
  4. morning stiffness
  5. rheumatoid nodules
  6. arthritis in 3 or more places
  7. radiographic (X-ray) evidence of changes

Often, clinical guidelines use words like “suggests” or “indicates” diagnosis of Rheumatoid Arthritis. Doctors use these guidelines to decide whether a patient has Rheumatoid Arthritis. Two doctors can decide that a particular patient does have RA even if the criteria are not precisely satisfied.

Why do so many people with Rheumatoid Arthritis go months, and even years before getting an RA diagnosis? I recently met a lady who went to 13 different doctors (including several rheumatologists, I believe!) before finding her RA diagnosis. And, why are so many told they are “atypical”? Why do I meet countless precious people who have RA and are being treated for RA, but do not fit the mold of the 7 guidelines?

I am starting to wonder whether the ACR’s RA mold is getting moldy. It’s getting old already. Things have come a long way since 1987. Consider two things:

First, medical advancements help Rheumatoid Arthritis diagnosis

There are medical tools which were not yet widely available in 1987. There are ultrasound and MRI machines, even small portable ones which can view the inside of the joints. There are also improved CAT scans and bone density scans.

The old Rheumatoid factor (Rf) test was only about 75 % “accurate.” Many people who are diagnosed with RA do not have a positive Rf. However, a newer test measures another antibody which is present in rheumatoid diseases called the cyclic citrulline-containing peptide. The anti-CCP test is about 90% “accurate.” There are other antibodies, too. And just recently, the possibility of another new test came over the horizon when another piece to the RA puzzle was found.

There are many other examples of advancements, but these are some which are glaringly obvious and can be understood even by laymen.

Second, the internet could improve Rheumatoid Arthritis diagnosis

With the advent of the net, there is a vast amount of evidence about the specific symptoms and indicators of Rheumatoid Arthritis. I know there are a million quacky wacky websites out there. Not that! There are a substantial number of solid legitimate blogs and forums where patients have been documenting the details of their RA. Researchers never had such vast records available to compare and analyze.
A report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found an average of 36 weeks between onset and diagnosis of Rheumatoid Arthritis. That’s nine months. Again, why? They state that “early disease recognition is challenging as only half of those who eventually develop RA initially present with features specific to the condition.”
Why aren’t the “features with which they present” being considered specific to the condition? Remember, these are not just folks who they bumped into in the elevator; these are patients “who eventually develop RA.” What did they have during the first nine months before the Rheumatoid Arthritis diagnosis? Were they RA WANNABES?

Do they think there is something wrong with the way that “patients present” or with the diagnostic criteria? The causes of Rheumatoid Arthritis are not known. The cure is not known. Accurate and prompt diagnosis remains elusive. Maybe the patients are correct and the criteria are inadequate. Next time: How is Rheumatoid Arthritis Diagnosed? Part 2.

Recommended reading:

:doctor:  Note: Brand new Rheumatoid Arthritis diagnosis guidelines which update the ones I called moldy oldies here: American College of Rheumatology Redefines Rheumatoid Arthritis

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Kelly Young. All rights reserved.

This entry was posted on Sunday, July 5th, 2009 at 5:56 pm and is filed under Reality Check. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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