In the last decade, much research has focused on the development of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and the symptomatic phase preceding the onset of clinical arthritis. Observational studies on imaging have revealed that subclinical joint inflammation in patients with arthralgia at risk for RA precedes and predicts the onset of clinically apparent arthritis. Moreover, the results of two placebo-controlled randomised proof-of-concept trials in patients with arthralgia and MRI-detected subclinical inflammation studies will soon be available. The initial results are encouraging and suggest a beneficial effect of DMARD treatment on subclinical inflammation. Since this may increase the necessity to detect subclinical joint inflammation in persons with arthralgia that are at risk for RA, we will here review what has been learnt about subclinical inflammation in at-risk individuals by means of imaging. We will focus on MRI as this method has the best sensitivity and reproducibility. We evaluate the prognostic value of MRI-detected subclinical inflammation and assess the lessons learnt from MRIs about the tissues that are inflamed early on and are associated with the clinical phenotype in arthralgia at risk for RA, for example, subclinical tenosynovitis underlying pain and impaired hand function. Finally, because long scan times and the need for intravenous-contrast agent contribute to high costs and limited feasibility of current MRI protocols, we discuss progress that is being made in the field of MRI and that can result in a future-proof way of imaging that is useful for assessment of joint inflammation on a large scale, also in a society with social distancing due to COVID-19 restrictions.
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