What do all these lab tests test for?
May was Lupus Awareness Month, and I wrote about self-empowerment through obtaining knowledge and information. We since hosted a webinar called Labs and Lupus: What do they mean? which offered an opportunity for people with lupus to learn how to read their labs.
In this hour-long webinar, rheumatologist Beverly Johnson, MD, MS teaches us about lab tests run for people with lupus, like the ANA test and what it looks like on a slide when it is positive. She also explains the other types of lab tests, like the erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), .C-reactive protein (CRP), C3 and C4 complement levels, and anti-double stranded DNA (anti-dsDNA). Do any of these sound familiar? After you watch the webinar, you will know more about each one and how they help diagnose and monitor lupus activity.
Some learnings I came away with:
- An ANA test is used to help diagnose lupus. This is a blood test that shows if your immune system is producing anti-nuclear antibodies. Looking at the blood sample under a microscope, these anti-nuclear antibodies light up green if the test is positive, indicating that lupus is a possibility. The slide would look completely black if the person did not have anti-nuclear antibodies.
- While the ANA is used to help diagnose lupus, it is not the best test to assess lupus activity and inflammation levels because it doesn’t give information about lupus activity or inflammation levels. One of the ways to monitor lupus is to evaluate C3 and C4 complement levels.
- Complements are the foot soldiers of the immune system and will battle invaders; in people with lupus, C3 and C4 complement levels can show up as below normal on lab test results. This means that there is lupus activity and the lupus could possibly be attacking one of your organs, like your kidneys, or another part of your body like your bones.
- Diet and stress might not have direct results on your lab test results, but a poor diet and high stress-levels can result in a flare, which will be reflected on the lab as active disease.
- When you are reviewing your own lab test results, you can figure out if something is abnormal because the paperwork will indicate what the normal range is. That way, you can determine if something is below or above the normal range. If your doctor hasn’t pointed out these abnormalities out to you, then you should ask about them. If your doctor has pointed these out to you, then you are equipped with the information to understand what the doctor is seeing.
My personal rule of thumb is to always request a copy of any labs or tests done and to review the results. I find this important because there have been times when I found something curious on my lab that needed more attention, but also to better understand and track your own health. Having a copy of your labs, and being able to review and understand them is empowering. You are not passively relying on someone else’s expertise. You can understand the results, too.
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