Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a complex autoimmune condition, making it very challenging to diagnose. Unlike some other diseases, you can’t simply go to your GP and have a single definitive test to confirm or rule out RA. Unfortunately, it can be overlooked and incorrectly diagnosed, impacting treatment plans and overall health outcomes.  

A rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis relies on a combination of different tests and imaging, and it’s crucial that you’re referred to a consultant rheumatologist to ensure you get an accurate diagnosis. Below we have delved into some of the key steps for a rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis, shedding light on the importance of early intervention.

Understanding Rheumatoid Arthritis Diagnosis

Although RA can impact all parts of the body, it primarily affects the joints. Pain in small joints like the hands and feet is often one of the first signs of rheumatoid arthritis that people notice. Over time, RA can cause irreversible joint damage and even result in disability if gone untreated. Due to its multifaceted nature, diagnosing RA can be a lengthy process. The journey to getting a confirmed diagnosis typically involves the following key steps:

  • Consulting Your GP – If you suspect you may have RA, whether you have noticed joint inflammation or you are experiencing joint pain, stiffness or swelling, the first step is to consult your GP. Lots of RA symptoms can overlap with other conditions, such as osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia, so it’s vital to seek professional advice.
  • Clinical Examination – Your GP will conduct a thorough physical exam, assessing the affected joints and your overall health. They will inquire about your medical history and any family history of autoimmune diseases, as genetics can play a role in RA.
  • Blood Tests – Blood tests are a critical component of accurately diagnosing RA. Elevated levels of specific markers, such as Rheumatoid Factor (RF) and Anti-Cyclic Citrullinated Peptide (anti-CCP) Antibodies, are sometimes indicative of RA. These blood tests help confirm the presence of autoimmune activity in your body and whether you are seropositive or seronegative. Inflammatory marker tests C-Reactive Protein (CRP) and Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate (ESR) are also used, however, there is no single definitive blood test for RA. 
  • Imaging Tests – Images, such as X-rays, ultrasound scans and MRI scans, may be ordered to assess joint damage and inflammation. These images provide valuable information to rheumatologists when determining the extent of the disease too.
  • Consulting a Rheumatologist – If your GP suspects RA based on their initial assessment, they will refer you to a rheumatologist who specialises in chronic inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. The rheumatologist may order additional tests or imaging if needed and will further evaluate your condition to provide an accurate diagnosis. 

Why Early Diagnosis Matters

Early diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis is crucially important. Research has shown that early intervention and the correct treatment can lead to improved outcomes. Here’s why:

  • Prescribing Medication – Early referral to a consultant rheumatologist allows for prompt treatment. For instance, it enables disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) to be prescribed as soon as possible. These medications work by helping to slow the progression of RA. Starting treatment as soon as possible is important because joint damage tends to occur most rapidly in the early stages of the disease.
  • Improved Quality of Life – Timely diagnosis and treatment not only help to prevent joint damage but also help reduce pain, stiffness and inflammation. This leads to an improved quality of life when you’re living with RA. You can also make better lifestyle choices to help you manage the disease and look after yourself. 
  • Preventing Complications – RA can lead to complications affecting other organs and systems in the body. Early intervention can reduce the risk of these complications and their associated health issues. In addition to avoiding painful joints, you can ensure your heart, lungs and eyes are all kept healthy. 

Getting an Accurate Diagnosis and Ongoing Support 

Getting a rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis is a process that relies on a combination of exams, blood tests and imaging tests. Early intervention really is essential to managing this disease effectively and improving your overall quality of life, so don’t overlook or dismiss any of the symptoms you’re experiencing. If you have noticed any signs of rheumatoid arthritis and you expect you have this condition, don’t hesitate to consult your GP and begin the journey toward an accurate diagnosis and suitable treatment plan.

Whether you have recently been diagnosed with RA or you want to learn more about the symptoms to look out for, explore The National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society (NRAS) website. Here you will find lots of information about diagnosing, treating and managing RA. With the right support and guidance, you can continue living life to the fullest post-diagnosis. 

If you want further support, you can also call our helpline on 0800 298 7650. Our team is here to help people with RA, their family, friends and colleagues.