Rheumatoid Arthritis Diagnosis

Medical History, Physical Exam, Lab Tests, and Imaging Tests to Diagnose RA

Diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a multi-step process; there isn’t one exam or test that can definitively diagnose RA.  Your doctor will go through several exams, including a physical exam and lab tests.

Medical History and Physical Exam to Diagnose RA
Your doctor will ask you questions about your medical history to help diagnose rheumatoid arthritis.  This is a way to figure out how the pain is affecting your life.

He or she will want to know:

  • How long have you had pain?
  • What joints are affected?  Are the joints symmetric (does the same joint hurt on both sides of your body)?
  • Are you stiff in the morning, or after periods of inactivity?
  • What is your tiredness level?  Do you feel more fatigued than normal?

In the physical exam, your doctor will examine your joints, feeling for warmth or swelling (indicating inflammation).  He or she will also test your range of motion—how well you can move various joints.

Because rheumatoid arthritis can affect other organs, including your skin, your doctor may examine you for other changes related to RA.

Lab Tests for Rheumatoid Arthritis
Please remember that none of these lab tests can diagnose rheumatoid arthritis on their own.  The results of lab tests are combined with your medical history and the physical exam to help your doctor diagnose RA.

In a blood test, the doctor may be looking at:

  • if there’s inflammation in your body
  • your complete blood count—the amount of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets in your body
  • the amount of rheumatic factor in your blood—that’s an antibody, and some people with RA have a higher amount of that factor than they should

Imaging Tests for RA
X-rays can help your doctor get a closer look at your joints to see if you have rheumatoid arthritis and how far progressed it is.

On an x-ray, your doctor will look at, among other things:

  • swelling around the joint
  • if you have osteophytes (bone spurs) developing on the joint
  • how aligned your joints are

Taking x-rays is also a good way for your doctor to monitor the progression of your rheumatoid arthritis—he or she can take yearly x-rays to better monitor your joints’ changes.

Combining all these exams and tests, your doctor can make a rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis and start developing an RA treatment plan for you.

Updated on: 11/19/15
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Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatments