A high rheumatism (rheumatoid) factor indicates the presence of greater-than-normal protein levels in the blood. These proteins can attack healthy tissues in the body and compromise the immune system. A high rheumatoid factor is used to diagnosis the presence of autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, Sjrogen’s syndrome or lupus. High levels of protein in the blood can also sometimes be an indicator of possible cancer. When the immune system, which is the body’s built-in defense against sickness, perceives the threat of viral or bacterial invaders or a foreign body such as a growth, it manufactures extra antibodies to attack and destroy the threat. The presence of these antibodies are often detected by the rheumatoid factor. The higher the factor, the greater potential for severe symptoms and potential damage if the disease process cannot be effectively treated.
As with all autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, the body’s own defense system fails and it cannot tell friend from foe. The immune system is tricked into producing and directing these antibodies to fight against healthy parts of the body. This can result in joint destruction, organ and glandular failure and inflammation of healthy connective tissue.
The rheumatoid (rheumatism) factor
The rheumatism factor is not a fool-proof test to determine the presence of autoimmune disease. Quest Diagnostics, a leading US laboratory, estimates that up to 20% of individuals diagnosed with an autoimmune disease test negative for an elevated Rf. A false rheumatoid factor can sometimes also be present due to other immunological diseases in the body. According to Medicine Net’s Editor and leading rheumatologist, Dr. William Shiel, the higher the rheumatoid factor, the greater the likelihood that rheumatoid arthritis is present and the greater potential for permanent damage due to the disease.
The Rf is but one of several auto-immune tests that is used to detect the presence of inflammation markers in the blood. It is frequently used in conjunction with one or more additional laboratory tests which may include a complete blood count, sedimentation rate and C reactive protein. A more conclusive diagnosis can be made when it can be confirmed by multiple diagnostics. When the rheumatoid factor is negative in spite of symptoms that suggest the presence of an auto-immune disease, a Citrulline antibody test is sometimes ordered to confirm rheumatoid arthritis as well as rule out other auto-immune diseases.
How the rheumatoid factor is interpreted
Rheumatoid arthritis most often onsets in individuals between the ages of 30 and 50. Juvenile arthritis, however, can strike in very young children. Researchers estimate that damage to the bone, joints, and connective tissues can occur as early as the first year of diagnosis. Diagnostic tests such as the rheumatoid factor are used to confirm the presence of the disease so that treatment can begin as soon as possible to slow down or halt the destruction in the body. The rheumatoid factor is considered statistically significant at the 95th percentile or when greater than 20 IU/ml. Test results within this range suggest the probability of the presence of an autoimmune disease, but should be confirmed with collaborative blood work.
When to have a rheumatoid factor done
Individuals who are experiencing joint stiffness, muscular pain that persists, or joint and connective tissue swelling with increased difficulty during the morning hours, should be evaluated by a rheumatologist to determine the cause and course of treatment. A rheumatologist will take a detailed history of presenting symptoms and perform a thorough examination. If he suspects the presence of an auto-immune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis, he will order a blood work panel which includes a rheumatoid factor to assist him in making the right diagnosis and determining a course of treatment.
Research into the causes and treatment of auto-immune diseases is ongoing and progressive. Early diagnosis coupled with advances in pharmacology make is possible to prevent many of the crippling effects that have historically been associated with rheumatoid arthritis. The rheumatoid factor continues to be one of the first laboratory tests used to screen for antibodies that may be waging war against an otherwise healthy body.