Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic disease that affects 1.3 million Americans. It's characterized by inflammation in the joints that, if left untreated, may spread and affect other parts of the body, including the major organs. While you can't prevent rheumatoid arthritis, a recent study suggests that it may be possible to predict the onset of the disease through a simple blood test. And researchers are excited by the possibility that, armed with that foreknowledge, doctors may be able to slow or alter the destructive course of the disease once it appears.

Scientists at Umea University in Sweden looked at blood work from 86 people who had donated blood and later were diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. At the same time, the team looked at blood samples from 256 control individuals (those without rheumatoid arthritis) who had donated blood to the same blood bank. What the researchers discovered was that people who gave blood and were later diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis had higher levels of inflammatory proteins known as cytokines in their blood. In addition, the cytokine patterns differed significantly from the cytokine patterns of the control group. The changes in the blood apparently begin several years before the rheumatoid arthritis even shows up. A blood test that can determine if someone is developing or will develop rheumatoid arthritis will help doctors make an accurate diagnosis of the disease, as many of its symptoms-joint pain, fatigue, low-grade fever, and lack of appetite-mimic those of other conditions. Perhaps even more importantly, knowing that someone will get rheumatoid arthritis may help doctors get ahead of the disease before it causes irreversible damage.

While the joints are the most commonly affected body part in rheumatoid arthritis, the disease does have the potential to cause complications elsewhere. The inflammation in the body may cause problems with the lungs, including painful breathing due to the lining of the lungs being inflamed; shortness of breath because of fluid buildup around the lungs; nodules in the lungs; and lung scarring. The disease can also manifest itself in the eyes, causing dry eyes, inflammation of different parts of the eyes, glaucoma, and cataracts.


Arthritis Foundation, www.arthritis.org;

Umea University, www.umu.se/english.