Ultrasounds for Arthritis

Arthritis, as you may know, is an umbrella term. There are actually more than 100 different types of arthritis, and while all of them cause joint pain and/or swelling you need to ID the specific condition before you can attempt to properly address it. Osteoarthritis (OA), for instance, is a “wear-and-tear” form of the disease that’s primarily treated with anti-inflammatory pain relievers. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), in contrast, is one of many autoimmune forms of arthritis; patients with RA usually require medication that calms their overactive immune system in order to stop or slow the progression of the disease.

To sort it out what’s causing a patient’s joint issues, doctors may rely on a number of diagnostic tools ranging from a physical exam to blood tests and imaging tests. While any of those may be helpful, a recent study suggests that ultrasounds (also called a sonograms) might be especially useful — not to mention quick and affordable (especially when compared to MRIs, which are much more expensive and time-consuming).

To conduct this study, which was published in The Open Medical Imaging Journal, Chinese researchers reviewed 52 previously published trials that involved using ultrasounds to diagnose one of seven types of arthritis: osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, calcium pyrophosphate deposition disease, psoriatic arthritis, infectious arthritis, or spondyloarthritis.

According to their findings, ultrasound — when used in conjunction with a thorough physical exam and patient-reported history — did a good job of pointing providers toward a specific diagnosis by identifying characteristics of each form of arthritis, though there was some overlap.

Ultrasound was especially useful for distinguishing between crystals caused by gout versus calcium pyrophosphate deposition disease (also known as pseudogout). It also helped providers determine whether patients who appeared to have osteoarthritis actually had bony erosions or if they had bursitis (inflammation of the fluid-filled sacs around the joints) instead.

“[Ultrasound] can prove to be a cheap, bedside, accurate imaging modality in evaluating and monitoring the disease process in each type of arthritis, if performed by a trained sonographer,” the authors concluded.

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