AssessmentsRheumatoid arthritis: Clinical practice
USMLE® Step 1 style questions USMLE
USMLE® Step 2 style questions USMLE
A 62-year-old woman comes to the office because of pain in her hands for three years. She describes the pain as progressive - coming on slowly and worsening over the course of the three years. She says that her aunt and wheelchair-bound grandmother had problems with their hands as well. A hand X-ray is obtained which shows soft tissue swelling and marked juxta-articular osteopenia in her metacarpophalangeal and proximal interphalangeal joints, and minor bony erosions. Which of the following will most likely be present on her plain film ten years from now?
Content Reviewers:Rishi Desai, MD, MPH
Rheumatoid arthritis has been linked to HLA-DR1 and HLA-DR4.
Each time there’s a flare, there’s an increase in synovial and immune cells, and over time, that results in a thick, swollen synovial membrane with granulation tissue - called a pannus.
Typically, rheumatoid arthritis affects at least three joints, generally ones in the hands and feet.
The disease tends to be symmetric, progressive, and over time it causes joint deformities like crooked fingers.
So the typical articular manifestations in rheumatoid arthritis are pain, swelling, and loss of mobility in the affected joints, but doesn’t usually cause redness or warmth because the inflammatory process is so gradual.
Usually, there’s morning stiffness that improves after 30 minutes of movement.
The most frequent sites of involvement are the proximal interphalangeal joints and metacarpo-phalangeal joints of the hand, whereas the distal interphalangeal joints are rarely involved because there’s very little synovium there. When these joints are affected, it typically causes reduced grip strength.
In the feet, usually the metatarsophalangeal joints are affected, and it causes a person to bear more weight on the heels and hyperextend the toes.
Other joints that can be involved are the wrists, elbows, shoulders, knees, and ankles.
Hip involvement usually only happens later in the disease, and that can cause pain in the groin, thigh, or low back.
One very dangerous spot is the C1-C2 joint, which is the only synovial joint in the spine. When it’s affected it can cause neck pain, and if it’s not managed properly it can lead to spinal cord compression and tetraplegia.
The system inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis results in cytokines that can cause extra-articular symptoms.
For example, cytokines can trigger fever, fatigue, and a loss of appetite that can eventually lead to weight loss.
In fact, cardiovascular disease is the primary cause of mortality associated with rheumatoid arthritis.
Rheumatoid nodules are round collections of macrophages and lymphocytes that have a central area of necrosis.
In the liver, lots of hepcidin is made and that causes decreased iron absorption in the intestines, and allows iron to get trapped in the macrophages - leading to lower serum iron levels.
Laboratory testing typically includes a complete blood count, which might show anemia of chronic inflammation, thrombocytosis, and a mild leukocytosis.
In addition, an ESR and CRP can be sent since they’re markers of systemic inflammation.
It’s also important to test for autoantibodies like rheumatoid factor and anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide antibodies, both of which are present in most individuals with rheumatoid arthritis.
A minority of individuals may have antinuclear antibodies as well.
Bilateral plain radiographs of the hands, wrists, and feet are also important as a baseline for monitoring disease progression.
Over time, changes might include decreased bone density around affected joints, soft tissue swelling, narrowing of the joint space, and bone erosions.
The diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis can be made if the disease has gone on for at least 6 weeks, involves at least three joints, there’s a positive rheumatoid factor or anti-citrullinated peptide antibody, and an elevated CRP or ESR.