Early Arthritis Clinic Acts Fast to Save Joints

Allen Anadarajah, M.D.

Allen Anadarajah, M.D.

Swedish researchers recently suggested that a simple blood test might one day allow doctors to diagnose rheumatoid arthritis years before any symptoms arise. With that kind predictive power, physicians could make a proactive strike, potentially slowing down disease damage or even stopping it in its tracks.

Developments like this one underscore how dramatically the rheumatology field has evolved in the past decade, said Allen Anandarajah, M.D., medical director of the URMC’s Early Arthritis Clinic, one of only about a half-dozen such centers recognized nationally.

“We now have a window of opportunity to make a life-changing difference for patients with rheumatoid arthritis, especially if we begin treating symptoms within the first three months,” Anandarajah said. The clinic aims to see new patients within two weeks of referral.

“That’s lightning speed in the midst of a national rheumatologist shortage,” Anandarajah said. “But we believe acting at the first signs is incredibly important. More than 50 percent of patients, if untreated for a year, will suffer joint damage. And half of all RA patients who go untreated – or are treated too late – wind up disabled by the third year of the disease, making it the most common, potentially treatable cause of disability in the Western world.”

arthritic hands

An autoimmune disease, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) affects 1 percent to 2 percent of the population, causing inflammation, pain, swelling, and irreversible damage. Patients should seek specialist care at the first subtle indicators of disease. A rheumatologist can confirm diagnosis by ordering an anti-CCP (cyclic citrullinated peptide antibody) test.

“Our goal aims far beyond just masking symptoms,” Anandarajah said. “Once we’re certain a patient has RA, we have an arsenal of treatments at our disposal, including newer injectable biological medicines that seem to abate symptoms and stall joint damage.”

Patients often travel from outside the area to visit URMC’s early arthritis clinic, which, in addition to being just one of a handful of such centers nationwide, boasts ultrasound technology as an inexpensive, at-the-fingertips tool for viewing soft tissues instantly. Images or video clips also can be saved for later comparison – all at about one tenth of the cost of an MRI. As another perk, since many RA sufferers also are at increased risk for low bone density, the clinic folds in an osteoporosis prevention/treatment program, including on-site bone density scanning.

“In addition to having the expertise and equipment available right in our clinic, by cohorting these patients we’re also in a strong position to serve as a trial site for exciting clinical research opportunities, like those in Sweden,” Anandarajah said.

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