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New blood test diagnoses rheumatoid arthritis

January 6, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
Rheumatoid arthritis causes more than a million people to cringe in pain every day. Women make up 75 percent of those people. New research is helping diagnose rheumatoid arthritis before the pain takes over.

People with rheumatoid arthritis often describe the pain as unrelenting, making it difficult to enjoy many activities. Unfortunately, there's no cure for it, but early diagnosis and treatment can keep people moving longer. And now there's a new way doctors can detect it even before the pain sets in.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) happens when the body's own immune cells attack healthy tissues, causing bone to painfully scrape against bone at the joint.

"The onset of RA can be explosive," said rheumatologist Dr. Mary Chester Wasko. "People can go to bed feeling well one night, and the next morning develop symptoms that can be very dramatic."

Symptoms include joint pain, swelling, stiffness, restricted range of motion and extreme fatigue. To diagnose it, doctors use a variety of tests and X-rays. But now a new blood test called Anti-cyclic Citrullinated Peptide (anti-CCP) is giving doctors hope for early treatment.

"It turns out that many people with RA have a positive blood test years in advance of getting the symptoms," said Dr. Marc Levesque, director of the University of Pittsburgh Rheumatoid Arthritis Center.

The latest results show the blood test is correct 86 percent of the time. But some doctors argue the RA blood markers could be confused with markers for other autoimmune diseases such as lupus, psoriasis or even a viral infection.

Still, the test could give doctors the head start they need to treat RA before symptoms appear, and aggressively with a combination of drugs.

Early warning signs of rheumatoid arthritis include warmth, swelling and pain in finger joints, wrists and feet. Fatigue, loss of appetite and fever are a few other symptoms to look out for.

Treatment can range from steroids, anti-inflammatory drugs and pain-killers, to joint-replacement surgery.