Laboratory tests in rheumatology: A rational approach

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Release date: March 1, 2019
Expiration date: February 29, 2020
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Laboratory tests are useful in diagnosing rheumatic diseases, but clinicians should be aware of the limitations of these tests. This article uses case vignettes to provide practical and evidence-based guidance on requesting and interpreting selected tests, including rheumatoid factor, anticitrullinated peptide antibody, antinuclear antibody, antiphospholipid antibodies, antineutrophil cytoplasmic antibody, and human leukocyte antigen-B27.


  • If a test was requested without a clear indication and the result is positive, it is important to bear in mind the potential pitfalls associated with that test; immunologic tests have limited specificity.
  • A positive rheumatoid factor or anticitrullinated peptide antibody test can help diagnose rheumatoid arthritis in a patient with early polyarthritis.
  • A positive HLA-B27 test can help diagnose ankylosing spondylitis in patients with inflammatory back pain and normal imaging.
  • Positive antinuclear cytoplasmic antibody (ANCA) can help diagnose ANCA-associated vasculitis in a patient with glomerulonephritis.
  • A negative antinuclear antibody test reduces the likelihood of lupus in a patient with joint pain.



Laboratory tests are often ordered inappropriately for patients in whom a rheumatologic illness is suspected; this occurs in both primary and secondary care.1 Some tests are available both singly and as part of a battery of tests screening healthy people without symptoms.

The problem: negative test results are by no means always reassuring, and false-positive results raise the risks of unnecessary anxiety for patients and clinicians, needless referrals, and potential morbidity due to further unnecessary testing and exposure to wrong treatments.2 Clinicians should be aware of the pitfalls of these tests in order to choose them wisely and interpret the results correctly.

This article provides practical guidance on requesting and interpreting some common tests in rheumatology, with the aid of case vignettes.


A 41-year-old woman, previously in good health, presents to her primary care practitioner with a 6-week history of pain and swelling in her hands and early morning stiffness lasting about 2 hours. She denies having any extraarticular symptoms. Physical examination reveals synovitis across her right metacarpophalangeal joints, proximal interphalangeal joint of the left middle finger, and left wrist. The primary care physician is concerned that her symptoms might be due to rheumatoid arthritis.

Would testing for rheumatoid factor and anticitrullinated peptide antibody be useful in this patient?

Rheumatoid factor is an antibody (immunoglobulin M, IgG, or IgA) targeted against the Fc fragment of IgG.3 It was so named because it was originally detected in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, but it is neither sensitive nor specific for this condition. A meta-analysis of more than 5,000 patients with rheumatoid arthritis reported that rheumatoid factor testing had a sensitivity of 69% and specificity of 85%.4

Table 1. Conditions associated with rheumatoid factor
Numerous other conditions can be associated with a positive test for rheumatoid factor (Table 1). Hence, a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis cannot be confirmed with a positive result alone, nor can it be excluded with a negative result.

Anticitrullinated peptide antibody, on the other hand, is much more specific for rheumatoid arthritis (95%), as it is seldom seen in other conditions, but its sensitivity is similar to that of rheumatoid factor (68%).4–6 A positive result would thus lend strength to the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, but a negative result would not exclude it.

Approach to early arthritis

When faced with a patient with early arthritis, some key questions to ask include7,8:

Is this an inflammatory or a mechanical problem? Inflammatory arthritis is suggested by joint swelling that is not due to trauma or bony hypertrophy, early morning stiffness lasting longer than 30 minutes, and elevated inflammatory markers (erythrocyte sedimentation rate or C-reactive protein). Involvement of the small joints of the hands and feet may be suggested by pain on compression of the metacarpophalangeal and metatarsophalangeal joints, respectively.

Is there a definite identifiable underlying cause for the inflammatory arthritis? The pattern of development of joint symptoms or the presence of extraarticular symptoms may suggest an underlying problem such as gout, psoriatic arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, or sarcoidosis.

If the arthritis is undifferentiated (ie, there is no definite identifiable cause), is it likely to remit or persist? This is perhaps the most important question to ask in order to prognosticate. Patients with risk factors for persistent disease, ie, for development of rheumatoid arthritis, should be referred to a rheumatologist early for timely institution of disease-modifying antirheumatic drug therapy.9 Multiple studies have shown that patients in whom this therapy is started early have much better clinical, functional, and radiologic outcomes than those in whom it is delayed.10–12

The revised American College of Rheumatology and European League Against Rheumatism criteria13 include the following factors as predictors of persistence:

  • Number of involved joints (with greater weight given to involvement of small joints)
  • Duration of symptoms 6 weeks or longer
  • Elevated acute-phase response (erythrocyte sedimentation rate or C-reactive protein level)
  • A positive serologic test (either rheumatoid factor or anticitrullinated peptide antibody).

If both rheumatoid factor and anticitrullinated peptide antibody are positive in a patient with early undifferentiated arthritis, the risk of progression to rheumatoid arthritis is almost 100%, thus underscoring the importance of testing for these antibodies.5,6 Referral to a rheumatologist should, however, not be delayed in patients with negative test results (more than one-third of patients with rheumatoid arthritis may be negative for both), and should be considered in those with inflammatory joint symptoms persisting longer than 6 weeks, especially with involvement of the small joints (sparing the distal interphalangeals) and elevated acute-phase response.

Rheumatoid factor in healthy people without symptoms

In some countries, testing for rheumatoid factor is offered as part of a battery of screening tests in healthy people who have no symptoms, a practice that should be strongly discouraged.

Multiple studies, both prospective and retrospective, have demonstrated that both rheumatoid factor and anticitrullinated peptide antibody may be present several years before the clinical diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis.6,14–16 But the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis for asymptomatic individuals who are rheumatoid factor-positive depends on the rheumatoid factor titer, positive family history of rheumatoid arthritis in first-degree relatives, and copresence of anticitrullinated peptide antibody. The absolute risk, nevertheless, is still very small. In some, there might be an alternative explanation such as undiagnosed Sjögren syndrome or hepatitis C.

In any event, no strategy is currently available that is proven to prevent the development of rheumatoid arthritis, and there is no role for disease-modifying therapy during the preclinical phase.16

Back to our patient

Blood testing in our patient reveals normal complete blood cell counts, aminotransferase levels, and serum creatinine concentration; findings on urinalysis are normal. Her erythrocyte sedimentation rate is 56 mm/hour (reference range 0–15), and her C-reactive protein level is 26 mg/dL (normal < 3). Testing is negative for rheumatoid factor and anticitrullinated peptide antibody.

Although her rheumatoid factor and anticitrullinated peptide antibody tests are negative, she is referred to a rheumatologist because she has predictors of persistent disease, ie, symptom duration of 6 weeks, involvement of the small joints of the hands, and elevated erythrocyte sedimentation rate and C-reactive protein. The rheumatologist checks her parvovirus serology, which is negative.

The patient is given parenteral depot corticosteroid therapy, to which she responds briefly. Because her symptoms persist and continue to worsen, methotrexate treatment is started after an additional 6 weeks.


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The tests that we order define us

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