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Subclinical inflammation on MRI of hand and foot of anticitrullinated peptide antibody–negative arthralgia patients at risk for rheumatoid arthritis

Hanna W van Steenbergen1*, Jessica AB van Nies1, Tom WJ Huizinga1, Monique Reijnierse2 and Annette HM van der Helm-van Mil1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Rheumatology, Leiden University Medical Center, P.O. Box 9600, 2300 RC, Leiden, the Netherlands

2 Department of Radiology, Leiden University Medical Center, P.O. Box 9600, 2300 RC, Leiden, the Netherlands

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Arthritis Research & Therapy 2014, 16:R92  doi:10.1186/ar4536

Published: 10 April 2014



It is known that anticitrullinated peptide antibody (ACPA)–positive rheumatoid arthritis (RA) has a preclinical phase. Whether this phase is also present in ACPA-negative RA is unknown. To determine this, we studied ACPA-negative arthralgia patients who were considered prone to progress to RA for local subclinical inflammation observed on hand and foot magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.


We studied a total of 64 ACPA-negative patients without clinically detectable arthritis and with arthralgia of the small joints within the previous 1 year. Because of the character of the patients’ symptoms, the rheumatologists considered these patients to be prone to progress to RA. For comparisons, we evaluated 19 healthy, symptom-free controls and 20 ACPA-negative RA patients, who were identified according to the 1987 American Rheumatism Association criteria. All participants underwent MRI of unilateral wrist, metacarpophalangeal and metatarsophalangeal joints. Synovitis and bone marrow oedema (BME) were scored according to the OMERACT rheumatoid arthritis magnetic resonance imaging scoring system, and the scores were summed to yield the ‘MRI inflammation score’. Scores were compared between groups. Among the ACPA-negative arthralgia patients, MRI inflammation scores were related to C-reactive protein (CRP) levels and the tenderness of scanned joints.


MRI inflammation scores increased progressively among the groups of controls and ACPA-negative arthralgia and RA patients (median scores = 0, 1 and 10, respectively; P < 0.001). The MRI inflammation scores of ACPA-negative arthralgia patients were significantly higher than those of controls (P = 0.018). In particular, the synovitis scores were higher in ACPA-negative arthralgia patients (P = 0.046). Among the ACPA-negative arthralgia patients, inflammation was observed predominantly in the wrist (53%). The synovitis scores were associated with CRP levels (P = 0.007) and joint tenderness (P = 0.026). Despite the limited follow-up duration, five patients developed clinically detectable arthritis. These five patients had higher scores for MRI inflammation (P = 0.001), synovitis (P = 0.002) and BME (P = 0.003) compared to the other patients.


Subclinical synovitis was observed in the small joints of ACPA-negative arthralgia patients, and especially in patients whose conditions progressed to clinically detectable arthritis. This finding suggests the presence of a preclinical phase in ACPA-negative RA. Further longitudinal studies of these lesions and patients are required to confirm this hypothesis.