Diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis is diagnosed through a physical examination and analysis of your symptoms. Your GP will also look at your personal and family medical history and may also ask you questions about your occupation, activities and diet.
GPs are not experts in rheumatoid arthritis, so being diagnosed effectively and quickly can be limited by their experience and knowledge.
You should ask if your surgery has a GP with a special interest in musculoskeletal medicine, as early diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis is directly linked to better management of the disease as it progresses (1).
Rheumatoid arthritis can be difficult to diagnose early on for the following reasons:
- There is no definitive test for the disease
- Symptoms differ from person to person
- Symptoms can be similar to those of other types of arthritis and joint conditions
- Usually symptoms develop over time, with few present in the early stages unless you get sudden onset rheumatoid arthritis which is much more obvious
It is therefore essential that if you and your GP suspect that you may have rheumatoid arthritis, that you are referred rapidly to specialist care for diagnosis and early treatment.
The National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) have published its latest guidance for doctors regarding the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.
What tests will I have?
Once you are under the care of a consultant rheumatologist who is experienced in diagnosing and treating rheumatoid arthritis, you may undergo the following tests:
- Blood test to detect:
- X-rays (usually of hands and feet)
- MRI scan
- Ultrasound scan
- CT scan
- Joint aspiration - fluid is drained from the affected joint using a sterile syringe. The fluid is analysed to see what is causing the problem. The consultant may also inject cortisone into the joint to reduce pain and inflammation at the same time.
Why am I having so many tests?
Don't worry if you have to undergo lots of tests. It is a normal part of the diagnostic process and does not indicate that your rheumatoid arthritis is going to be severe or difficult to treat.
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Always consult your own GP if you are concerned about your health.