Conventional Radiography of the Hands and Wrists in Rheumatoid Arthritis. What a Rheumatologist Should Know and How to Interpret the Radiological Findings

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory disease affecting the synovial membrane, leading to joint damage and bone destruction. Conventional radiography (CR) of the hands and wrists has been, for many years, the primary imaging modality used to diagnose and monitor RA. On the other hand, many investigators in clinical trials and observational studies used CR of the hands and wrists to demonstrate drug effectiveness and structural damage progression. The purpose of this review is to discuss the evaluation and interpretation of the hands and wrists by CR in RA patients and the radiographic changes occurring in a specific joint. Thus, the literature was reviewed until January 2019 for studies regarding RA radiological evaluation of the hands and wrists, as well as radiological progression using CR. The assessment of joint pathology in RA patients should begin with CR which is the best imaging modality to evaluate any subtle changes occurring at the bone level. Once high-quality radiographs are obtained in appropriate views/projections, then an accurate evaluation can often be made without any further imaging studies. Therefore, CR is a valuable tool for RA screening. It is an easy-to-perform technique and gives important information assisting in differentiating between RA from other arthritides. In contrary CR does not provide good information when early RA changes start to appear, such as synovial inflammation or other soft-tissue structural changes. Nevertheless, it still remains the most commonly used imaging tool in rheumatology and has a number of advantages: it is easily available in most rheumatologists and readily accessible in most patients. It is inexpensive and relatively safe. It provides immediate information and can be interpreted easily by the requested rheumatologist. Finally, the data are reproducible and can be used for serial evaluation and follow-up.