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What is a positive ANA and what does it mean?

December 12, 2016
What is a positive ANA

One of the most frequent rheumatology consultations is for a positive ANA, also called an antinuclear antibody.  So what does it mean to have a positive ANA?  This is kind of loaded question and the answer is complex.  The answer is usually quite personalized to the person and their symptoms and usually entails follow-up bloodwork and evaluation by a rheumatologist.  But in simple terms, an ANA is an antibody directed towards the nucleus of a cell.

 

How is an ANA measured?

The ANA is calculated by taking a standardized cell from the lab and mixing it with a person’s blood.  If a person has antinuclear antibodies, these will stick to the standardized cells’ nuclei.  At this point, there’s no way for us to know whether this has happened, so the lab tech adds fluoresceinated antibodies to the mix.  These antibodies bind to ANAs that stuck to a nucleus.  With the help of a specialized microscope, the lab tech can now visualize the ANA because the fluoresceinated antibodies make them light up.

My doctor told me my ANA was high.  What does that mean?

Unfortunately, the tech cannot count how many ANAs they see.  Instead, they see how much they can dilute the blood and still see the fluoresceinated antibodies.  So when you see and ANA of 1:80, that means the tech really wasn’t able to dilute very much.  This is a low level.  If you see a value of 1:640, that means they were able to dilute way more.  This is a higher level.

So how much dilution is enough to consider an ANA as positive?  That answer really depends on the lab.  Every lab has different cut off values, but in general, an ANA of 1:80 is typically considered positive.  Whether it’s clinically significant, is a whole different question.  This is where the art of medicine comes into play.  But before that, let’s talk about patterns because those are important too.

Positive ANA patterns

So let’s take an example.  Your doctor runs an ANA and it comes back as 1:320 speckled pattern.  So what does that mean?  When the lab tech was looking at the fluoresceinated antibodies, it basically literally looked speckled.  There are many other kinds of patterns: homogenous, centromere, nucleolar, speckled, rim etc.  Each of these patterns possibly indicate the presence of specific nuclear antibodies.  For example, the presence of a speckled positive ANA indicates the presence of these specific autoantibodies, SSA, SSB, RNP, Smith, and Ku antibodies.  These specific nuclear antibodies are themselves associated with specific autoimmune diseases.  It’s important to take ANA patterns with a grain of salt because interpretation highly depends on experience.

I’m not going to go more into details about specific nuclear antibodies because first, there’s about 150 of them and second, they’re all associated with different diseases lupus being one of them.  That’s a lot of material to cover in one article.

When is a positive ANA clinically significant?

Now that we understand what an ANA actually is, we can now start to approach the subject of clinical significance AND when you should be tested.

The problem with the ANA is that it can be found in normal healthy people.

  • ANA 1:40 is found in 20 – 30% of healthy people
  • ANA 1:80 is found in 10 – 15% of healthy people
  • ANA 1:160 is found in 5% of healthy people
  • ANA 1:320 is found in 3% of healthy people
  • 5 – 25% of healthy people with a family member suffering from lupus have a positive ANA
  • Up to 70% of people aged above 70 years have a positive ANA

To complicate things even more, someone who is about to have and autoimmune disease can have a positive ANA… UP TO 10 YEARS before they actually develop the disease.  Cancer and infections can also cause someone to have a positive ANA.  It can even be positive when people are taking certain medications.  Not terribly not helpful right?

Bad example

So someone runs an ANA just because and it’s positive.

  1. Does it mean anything?
  2. Is the person one of those healthy people that has a positive ANA?
  3. Is the person going to develop an autoimmune disease in the future?

In this scenario, I would say that this test is of low clinical significance because that person did not have any symptoms.  Because so many people who are completely healthy have an ANA, the test should only be run if a person has a symptom or better yet, multiple symptoms that are suggestive of an autoimmune disease like lupus, Sjögren’s syndrome, systemic sclerosis, mixed connective tissue disease, etc.  In that situation, it is helping answer a question.

Good example

If you’ve read my earlier post, 8 important warning signs of scleroderma, you’ll remember that Raynaud’s phenomenon is an important red flag for scleroderma.  The majority of people suffering from Raynaud’s have no underlying autoimmune disease.  A small proportion does.  This is the perfect scenario, where an ANA would be useful.  If the ANA is negative, the person likely will NOT develop an autoimmune disease.  If the ANA is positive, then the person it at high risk of developing an autoimmune disease like scleroderma or Sjogren’s syndrome.

Let’s wrap things up

Ultimately it all boils down to this simple fact: doctors treat people not numbers.

As a physician I care about symptoms and signs way more than lab tests.  Don’t get me wrong, these tests are important.  For example, over 99% of people suffering from systemic lupus erythematosus have a positive ANA.  It’s pretty much safe to say that if someone tests negative for ANA, they likely don’t have lupus.  FYI that other less than 1% usually have a positive SSA, they have a problem with their complement system, or they have a lot of protein in their urine (nephrotic syndrome).

I hope I’ve helped you better understand the elusive and mysterious positive ANA.  If you’ve tested positive for an ANA and have more questions, I highly urge you to speak with your physician or local rheumatologist.  And remember, doctors treat people not numbers.

References

Rheumatology Secrets 3rd edition

Medical Disclaimer

This information is offered to educate the general public. The information posted on this website does not replace professional medical advice, but for general information purposes only. There is no Doctor – Patient relationship established. We strongly advised you to speak with your medical professional if you have questions concerning your symptoms, diagnosis and treatment.

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