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Rheumatoid arthritis

Diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis

At Dignity Health, your doctor will assess your health and medical history, perform a physical exam, conduct X-rays, and take blood tests to help diagnose RA.

Blood test results of abnormally low red blood cell counts (anemia), high rheumatoid factor (an antibody found in people with RA), elevated erythrocyte sedimentation rate (a measure of inflammation), and antibodies to cyclic citrullinated peptides (anti-CCP antibodies) can all indicate RA.

Early on, X-rays may not show anything unusual. As the disease progresses though, tests will reveal changes or damage to your joint. MRIs can also sometimes be useful in determining how much the disease has progressed.

Because RA is considered a chronic rather than acute condition, symptoms often must be present for more than three months to establish a definitive diagnosis, though many patients are diagnosed faster.


While there’s no cure for RA, there are a variety of treatments that can reduce and delay your joint damage. At Dignity Health, your doctor may recommend medications, changes to your lifestyle, and, in some cases, surgery (to correct deformities or replace a damaged joint).

A combination of medications may help reduce inflammation, slow the progression of the disease, and control your symptoms.

Other therapies to potentially relieve RA symptoms include acupuncture, physical therapy, hot and cold treatments, and occupational therapy. You can also talk with your doctor about reducing your symptoms with an RA-specific diet and exercise plan.

Telling the difference between RA and other conditions

RA is often confused with other conditions that can cause joint pain, including:

  • Anemia
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Lupus
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Lyme disease
  • Inflammatory bowel disease and Crohn’s disease
  • Palindromic rheumatism
  • Some viral infections
  • Reactive arthritis resulting from bacterial infection

Many of these conditions cause overlapping symptoms, including joint pain and stiffness.

RA is also potentially confused with osteoarthritis, which causes pain and stiffness in the joints, but is caused by wear and tear, not inflammation from an immune response.

In order to distinguish RA from other autoimmune conditions, your doctor will likely perform a variety of diagnostic tests, including imaging of your joints, blood tests, and comprehensive physical exams. Your doctor may also recommend that you see a rheumatologist (a specialist focused on diagnosing and treating rheumatic diseases that affect the joints and soft tissues, autoimmune diseases, and inherited connective tissue disorders).

If you have persistent swelling, pain, or stiffness in your joints, it’s important to find a medical professional to diagnose your condition as soon as possible. Dignity Health provides comprehensive care for rheumatoid arthritis as part of our orthopedic services. Consult with a trained specialist at Dignity Health through our Find a Doctor tool.

The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.