BackgroundPeriarticular osteopenia is an early sign of incipient joint injury in rheumatoid arthritis (RA), but cannot be accurately quantified using conventional radiography. Digital X-ray radiogrammetry (DXR) is a computerized technique to estimate bone mineral density (BMD) from hand radiographs. The aim of this study was to evaluate whether decrease in BMD of the hands (BMD loss), as determined by DXR 3 months after diagnosis, predicts radiographic joint damage after 1 and 2 years in patients with early RA.MethodsPatients (n = 176) with early RA (<12 months after onset of symptoms) from three different Swedish rheumatology centers were consecutively included in the study, and 167 of these patients were included in the analysis. Medication was given in accordance with Swedish guidelines, and the patients were followed for 2 years. Rheumatoid factor and antibodies to cyclic citrullinated peptides (anti-CCP) were measured at baseline, and 28-joint Disease Activity Score (DAS28) was assessed at each visit. Radiographs of the hands and feet were obtained at baseline, 3 months (hands only) and 1 and 2 years. Baseline and 1-year and 2-year radiographs were evaluated by the Larsen score. Radiographic progression was defined as a difference in Larsen score above the smallest detectable change. DXR-BMD was measured at baseline and after 3 months. BMD loss was defined as moderate when the decrease in BMD was between 0.25 and 2.5 mg/cm2/month and as severe when the decrease was greater than 2.5 mg/cm2/month. Multivariate regression was applied to test the association between DXR-BMD loss and radiographic damage, including adjustments for possible confounders.ResultsDXR-BMD loss during the initial 3 months occurred in 59% of the patients (44% moderate, 15% severe): 32 patients (19%) had radiographic progression at 1 year and 45 (35%) at 2 years. In multiple regression analyses, the magnitude of DXR-BMD loss was significantly associated with increase in Larsen score between baseline and 1 year (p = 0.033, adjusted R-squared = 0.069).ConclusionDXR-BMD loss during the initial 3 months independently predicted radiographic joint damage at 1 year in patients with early RA. Thus, DXR-BMD may be a useful tool to detect ongoing joint damage and thereby to improve individualization of therapy in early RA.