Fifty two patients with seropositive rheumatoid arthritis (RA) were studied over a period of one year to investigate possible relationships among changes of circulating immune complexes (CIC), deposits of immunoglobulins and complement around the cutaneous blood vessels, clinical activity of the disease, and the presence of extra-articular manifestations (EAM). The presence or absence of IgM and C3 in and around the cutaneous blood vessels correlated significantly with the presence or absence of extra-articular features in cross sectional and longitudinal studies. Patients with evidence of these cutaneous immune deposits also had a greater prevalence of CIC as determined by the Clq binding assay (ClqBA) or polyethylene glycol (PEG) assay for IC containing IgM (IgM IC). Although the degree of perivascular mononuclear cell infiltration around the blood vessels in the papillary dermis was related to the patients' clinical state at the initial assessment, it did not correlate with the later changes in the activity of the joint disease or the occurrence of EAM. Thus the deposition of immunoglobulin or complement, or both, seems to be independent of cellular infiltration. The meaning of these cellular infiltrates is not yet fully understood. Our study has shown that many patients with RA who appeared to have only joint disease in fact had subclinical systemic disease as reflected by a positive skin biopsy or CIC. Moreover, the disappearance of IgM deposits from the skin correlated with the disappearance of EAM and improvement of joint disease.
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