Background: Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic systemic inflammatory disease which primarily causes a symmetric polyarthritis. Clinical manifestations of the disease include joint pain, stiffness, and swelling. Unless treated, this debilitating disease can progress into long-term disability. Medications for RA include synthetic disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) and biologic agents. The rapid expansion of new RA drugs into the market has led to a need for health care practitioners to understand the effectiveness of each medication and the indications of use including when to initiate and stop therapies. Clinical assessment tools, including biomarkers used to indicate RA and the progression of the disease, have been proven effective for making a diagnosis and determining effective treatment regimens. Disease activity scales are also useful for guiding diagnoses and monitoring patients to assess treatment effectiveness.
Objectives: To review the various clinical assessment tools that have been designed to confirm an early diagnosis of RA, measure disease progression, and assist in determining the most optimal treatment regimens for patients with RA.
Summary: The diagnosis of RA combines the patient history of joint pain and stiffness and the physical examination documentation of symmetric polyarticular joint swelling (synovitis). Laboratory tests including radiographs and blood tests for biomarkers can provide useful information to confirm the diagnosis of RA. Various autoantibodies have been reported in the blood of RA patients, but only the rheumatoid factor (RF) and anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide antibodies (anti-CCP) have been incorporated as diagnostic measures in routine clinical practice. Monitoring and assessment instruments for RA include the Disease Activity Score 28 (DAS28), the Simplified Disease Activity Index (SDAI), and the Clinical Disease Activity Index (CDAI). Although these clinical assessment tools have limitations, health care providers can use them as measures of disease progression and to assist in planning treatment strategies to modify disease activity and improve the quality of life for the patient.