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Diagnosing Rheumatoid Arthritis

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    Though diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis isn't easy, it is extremely important to correctly identify those with the disease. Delaying the diagnosis can be harmful because joint damage can occur early in the disease. Some experts think that blocking early joint damage can have huge long-term benefits.

    The problem arises when it looks like someone has rheumatoid arthritis but they don't yet meet the criteria for diagnosis. If someone doesn't actually have it, it would be wrong to treat them because the drugs used to treat RA are powerful and can have serious side effects.

    If you or your doctor suspects rheumatoid arthritis, your doctor will follow a series of steps to either diagnose or rule out the disease. It will take time, but eventually you will have a definite answer. There is some information and a few tools that are valuable to doctors in diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis. They include:

    • A careful history. Take note of the frequency, severity, and time of day of your symptoms. Pass this information on to your doctor.
    • A physical exam. Your doctor will look closely at your joints to detect signs of inflammation or damage. The doctor may also look for other issues aside from the joints that can provide additional clues.
    • Lab tests. These can include tests for inflammation in your blood or joint fluid and more specific tests for rheumatoid arthritis.
    • X-rays. They can be useful to identify any joint damage that has already occurred.

    In early rheumatoid arthritis, there may be no instant answers, either for you or your doctors. The best strategy is close follow-up by a physician. If you think you have rheumatoid arthritis, see a rheumatologist or consult with your primary care doctor, and visit regularly.

    WebMD Medical Reference

    Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on January 13, 2015
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