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Which Patients Should You Run An ANA Test On?

Medically reviewed by 
 
Which Patients Should You Run An ANA Test On?

Autoimmune disease encompasses nearly one hundred distinct disorders that affect 12.5% of the global population. Depending on the immune system's target, these conditions can present with symptoms affecting every body system, making diagnosis challenging. Along with a comprehensive medical evaluation and physical exam, the antinuclear antibody test assists doctors in diagnosing autoimmune diseases, helping patients get the treatment they need to improve their quality of life and health outcomes. 

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Overview of the ANA Test

Antinuclear antibodies (ANA) are proteins produced by the immune system that target cellular components within the cell's nucleus. The nucleus is the central part of a cell that houses genetic material, including DNA. In a healthy immune system, antibodies are responsible for identifying and neutralizing foreign substances, such as bacteria or viruses. However, in autoimmune diseases, the immune system produces antibodies that mistakenly recognize and attack the body's own cells. The ANA test identifies and measures these antibodies, acting as a primary screening tool for autoimmune diseases. The patterns and titers of ANAs can offer insights into the type and severity of the autoimmune condition, aiding in diagnosis and guiding treatment decisions. The ANA Screen by Med Access Labs is an example of an ANA test that providers can order through Rupa Health.

Indications for ANA Testing

Autoimmune diseases often manifest with a broad spectrum of symptoms that can mimic those of various other medical disorders, leading to a lack of specificity. This contributes to the challenge of quickly diagnosing autoimmune disease. On average, it takes four years for a patient to receive an appropriate autoimmune diagnosis after the onset of symptoms. 

The ANA test is an example of the advancements that have increased the diagnostic precision of autoimmune diseases. ANA testing is often ordered as part of an initial workup when a patient presents with symptoms suggestive of autoimmune disorders. Autoimmune diseases commonly present with similar unexplained symptoms, such as joint pain, muscle weakness, skin rashes, fatigue, and unexplained fevers.

Autoimmune Disorders and the ANA Test

Many autoimmune disease diagnostic criteria include the presence of ANAs as a major component, reflecting the commonality of this antibody in individuals with the disease. However, it is important to note that a positive ANA alone does not confirm a specific autoimmune condition, as it can also be found in healthy individuals or those with other non-autoimmune disorders. 

Let's discuss some of the autoimmune disorders associated with positive ANA results. 

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE)

SLE is a chronic and complex autoimmune disease characterized by inflammation and damage to various organs and tissues in the body. This leads to a wide range of symptoms affecting the skin, joints, kidneys, heart, lungs, brain, blood cells, and other organs. The symptoms of SLE can vary widely among individuals, including fatigue, joint pain and swelling, skin rashes (such as the characteristic butterfly-shaped rash on the face), fever, photosensitivity, and involvement of internal organs. SLE often follows a pattern of flares and remissions, with symptoms worsening during flares and improving during periods of remission. The presence of ANA is not specific to SLE. However, 98% of patients with systemic lupus will have a positive ANA test, making it the most sensitive test for confirming an SLE diagnosis.

Scleroderma

Scleroderma is a chronic autoimmune disease characterized by the abnormal hardening and tightening of the skin and connective tissues, driven by the immune system's misguided attack on healthy tissues. This condition, which can range from localized skin involvement to systemic effects impacting internal organs, results in the overproduction of collagen. Common symptoms include skin tightening, joint pain, Raynaud's phenomenon, and potential organ complications. ANA is present in 90-95% of patients with scleroderma, usually with a speckled or centromere pattern.

Sjögren's Syndrome

Sjögren's Syndrome is characterized by the immune system's attack on the body's moisture-producing glands, leading to diminished secretion of fluids, primarily affecting the eyes and mouth. This results in symptoms such as dry eyes and dry mouth, often accompanied by a gritty or burning sensation. Beyond the hallmark symptoms of sicca syndrome (dryness), Sjögren's can also affect other parts of the body, causing fatigue, joint pain, and, in some cases, involvement of organs such as the lungs, kidneys, and nervous system. 80% of patients with Sjögren's test positive for ANA.

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)

In RA, the immune system attacks the synovium (lining of the joints), leading to inflammation that can eventually result in joint damage and deformities. Common symptoms include joint pain, swelling, stiffness, and decreased joint function, typically affecting joints on both sides of the body. Morning stiffness that lasts for more than 30 minutes is a characteristic feature. RA can also cause fatigue, fever, and systemic complications, impacting organs such as the heart and lungs. ANA assays are positive in approximately 40% of patients with RA. 

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Interpreting ANA Test Results

ANA test results are often reported in two parts: the level (or titer) and the pattern. Interpreting ANA test results involves considering both of these. The titer indicates the concentration or level of ANAs in the blood and is presented as a ratio (e.g., 1:40, 1:80, 1:160, 1:320, and 1:640). Some, but not all, labs will report any titer above 1:160 as positive. (3)

The pattern refers to how the ANAs distribute themselves within the nucleus of cells. Common patterns include homogeneous, speckled, nucleolar, centromere, and peripheral. Different patterns may be associated with specific autoimmune diseases. For example, the most frequently observed ANA patterns observed in patients with SLE are speckled and homogenous. (3

A higher titer and a pattern that correlates with a particular autoimmune disease can guide healthcare professionals in further diagnostic investigations. However, it's crucial to interpret ANA results in conjunction with a patient's overall clinical presentation, symptoms, and additional laboratory findings to arrive at an accurate diagnosis and determine appropriate treatment strategies. A rheumatologist is typically involved in the comprehensive assessment and interpretation of ANA test results.

False Positives and Limitations of ANA Testing

While valuable in assessing autoimmune diseases, ANA testing has limitations that necessitate caution in interpreting results. One significant limitation is the potential for false positives, as a positive ANA result can occur in individuals without autoimmune conditions. For example, more than 95% of people with lupus are ANA-positive, but only 11-13% of people with a positive ANA have lupus. Up to 30% of healthy individuals may have a positive ANA test, so ANA tests cannot confirm any type of autoimmune disease on their own. (6

ANA positivity is strongly age-dependent, and many older individuals – particularly women older than 65 – have positive ANA tests without disease. In the United States, ANA prevalence is estimated to be 15% in men and 22% in women over age 70. These rates are nearly double than of those aged 12-19 years old. Despite this, the incidence of most autoimmune diseases is not higher in the elderly. The reason for age-associated increases in ANA is not well understood. (12

Positive ANA in the absence of autoimmune disease has also been associated with viral infection (e.g., hepatitis C, parvovirus), bacterial infections (e.g., tuberculosis), parasitic infections (e.g., schistosomiasis), some cancers (e.g., lymphoma), and certain medications (e.g., antihypertensive, antibiotic, and immunotherapy drugs) (5).

Alternatively, some patients with autoimmune disease may not have any detectable autoantibodies, a condition classified as seronegative autoimmune disease. Although seronegativity is relatively rare, seronegative autoimmune disease poses a challenge to and contributes to delayed autoimmune diagnosis. (10

Follow-up After ANA Testing

Following an ANA test, the recommended follow-up steps depend on the results obtained. Further diagnostic investigations are often warranted in the case of a positive ANA result. This may involve additional testing for specific antibodies, such as extractable nuclear antigens (ENA), to help identify the autoimmune condition more precisely. ENA antibodies attack ribonucleoproteins or proteins that do not contain DNA. In contrast to ANA, elevated ENA markers can significantly support a diagnosis of various autoimmune diseases, such as SLE, scleroderma,  polymyositis, and Sjögren's syndrome.

Additionally, a positive ANA result may prompt a referral to a rheumatologist, a doctor who specializes in musculoskeletal disease and autoimmune disorders. Rheumatologists are trained to conduct a thorough clinical evaluation, interpret complex test results, and formulate comprehensive treatment plans tailored to specific autoimmune conditions. 

Patient Education and Counseling

In a medical setting, bad news is defined as, "any information which adversely and seriously affects an individual's view of his or her future." Receiving news of a positive ANA test result can be an emotionally charged and daunting experience for patients. The term "positive" may evoke anxiety and concern, potentially leading to misconceptions and fears about chronic health conditions. The doctor's role in educating and guiding patients through the meaning of their results is of utmost importance. A skilled healthcare professional can provide context, explaining that a positive ANA result is not a definitive diagnosis but rather an indication of immune system activity that may or may not be related to an autoimmune disorder. By imparting this nuanced understanding, doctors can alleviate unnecessary anxiety, empower patients with knowledge, and emphasize the need for further assessments to determine the specific nature and implications of the immune response. This educational dialogue forms an integral part of the patient-doctor relationship, fostering trust and facilitating informed decision-making as patients navigate the path toward a comprehensive evaluation and potential diagnosis. 

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Which Patient's Should You Run an ANA Test On?

While ANA testing is a valuable tool for assessing immune system activity and identifying potential autoimmune disorders, it is crucial to interpret results judiciously. The prevalence of positive ANA results in healthy individuals and the possibility of false positives underline the importance of integrating these findings with clinical judgment and a thorough patient history. Healthcare professionals should view ANA results as part of a larger diagnostic picture, recognizing that a positive result alone does not equate to a definitive autoimmune diagnosis. The collaborative synergy between laboratory findings and the patient's clinical presentation ensures a more accurate assessment and facilitates optimal patient care. This approach guides appropriate follow-up testing, such as ENA panels, and informs referrals to specialists like rheumatologists, facilitating a comprehensive evaluation essential for nuanced and personalized medical management.

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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References

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