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Physicians have a difficult time predicting the future for newly diagnosed rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patients. For example, some patients will have only mild symptoms, while the disease will disable others. Foreseeing the future may no longer be an issue, however. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be able to tell what is down the road for RA patients. The results of a new study published in Arthritis & Rheumatism (July 2003) conclude that an MRI may predict who will have an aggressive form of RA, allowing physicians to target the strongest medicines to patients who will really need them.
For the study, researchers used 42 volunteers who were in the early stages of RA. All of the participants had an x-ray of the wrist of their dominant hand. The tests were repeated at 1 year and at 6 years. The results showed that patients who had bone swelling at the beginning of the study were 6.5 times more likely to have serious damage to their joints at the end of the study. The study also found MRIs were more effective at picking up bone erosion than x-rays.
Rheumatology experts are not sure if MRIs are the best answer because they are too costly to be used as screening tools and many insurance companies will not cover the cost. Experts do believe, however, that MRIs have future potential because early intervention is important in helping to control the disease and limit the damage.