BackgroundMusculoskeletal (MSK) symptoms are among the commonest reasons for primary care assessments; however, few individuals will be diagnosed with an inflammatory arthritis (IA) within the following year. The purpose of this study was to investigate, in individuals with new MSK symptoms, the association between patient factors and risk of progression to IA, in order to optimise primary care referrals to rheumatology.MethodsIndividuals ≥16 years old with new non-specific MSK symptoms and no clinical synovitis were recruited by primary care across the UK from July 2007 until May 2019. Those testing positive for the anti-CCP2 assay (anti-CCP+) were invited to Leeds for follow-up. Subjects with a negative result (anti-CCP−) were sent a 1-year questionnaire, and general practitioners were contacted to confirm whether the individual had been diagnosed with an IA by a rheumatologist. Predictors for progression were assessed using multivariable regression analysis.ResultsSix thousand seven hundred eighty individuals were recruited: 3% were anti-CCP+, of whom 45% progressed to IA, predominantly rheumatoid arthritis. Anti-CCP+ participants with high antibody levels had an odds ratio (OR) for progression to IA of 9.42 [P < 0.001, 95% CI (3.13–28.30)], hand pain, OR 2.74 [P = 0.043, 95% CI (1.03–7.27)] and foot pain, OR 4.10 [P = 0.003, 95% CI (1.59–10.54)]. In low-level anti-CCP+ individuals, absence of pain in hands or feet had a negative predictive value of 96% for progression to IA.One-year follow-up data were available for 5640 anti-CCP− individuals, of whom 53 were diagnosed with IA (0.93%). Pain in hands, OR 2.51 [P = 0.018, 95% CI (1.17–5.39)] or knees, OR 3.03 [P = 0.003, 95% CI (1.47–6.25)] were associated with development of IA within 12 months.ConclusionsThis is the largest prospective primary care study of individuals at risk of IA, and the first one to prospectively investigate the outcome of MSK symptoms in a large anti-CCP− cohort. High anti-CCP levels and pain in hands/feet indicated an increased likelihood of progression to IA. In patients with low anti-CCP level and no pain in the hands/feet, progression is unlikely. In anti-CCP− patients, those with hand or knee pain were at increased risk of progression. This study demonstrates that routinely available tests and joint symptoms provide useful discrimination that may be used to prioritise referrals to rheumatology and avoid a delayed diagnosis.Trial registrationNCT, NCT02012764. Registered 25 January 2007.