Subclinical joint inflammation in patients with arthralgia is predictive for progression to rheumatoid arthritis (RA). However, the time course of progression for bone marrow edema (osteitis), synovitis, and/or tenosynovitis is unsettled. This longitudinal study assessed the course of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)-detected subclinical joint inflammation during progression to RA
Patients that progressed from clinically suspect arthralgia (CSA) to RA underwent 1.5-T MRI of the metacarpophalangeal (MCP), wrist, and metatarsophalangeal (MTP) joints at presentation with arthralgia and at first identification of synovitis assessed through physical examination (n = 31). MRIs were evaluated for osteitis, synovitis, tenosynovitis, and erosions by two readers, blinded for clinical data and order in time.
To estimate changes in MRI scores between the asymptomatic state and CSA onset, scores of MRI features at CSA baseline were compared with scores from age-matched symptom-free persons.
At a presentation with CSA, synovitis and tenosynovitis scores were higher than scores from age-matched symptom-free persons (p = 0.004 and p = 0.001, respectively). Anti-citrullinated protein antibody (ACPA)-positive arthralgia patients also had increased osteitis scores (p = 0.04).
The median duration between presentation with arthralgia and RA development was 17 weeks. During progression to RA, synovitis and osteitis increased significantly (p = 0.001 and p = 0.036, respectively) in contrast to tenosynovitis and erosion scores. This pattern was similar in both ACPA subsets, although statistical significance was reached for synovitis and osteitis in ACPA-negative but not ACPA-positive RA.
Increased tenosynovitis and synovitis scores at CSA onset and the increase in synovitis and osteitis during progression to RA suggest an 'outside-in' temporal relationship of arthritis development, in particular for ACPA-negative RA. For ACPA-positive RA, further studies are needed.