Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate

Other names: ESR

The erythrocyte sedimentation rate test is used to measure inflammation in the body; it involves measuring the sedimentation (fall) of erythrocytes (red blood cells) in a long, thin tube filled with blood. Normally, red blood cells fall slowly, but the speed may be increased by the presence of increased levels of certain proteins, including immunoglobulin and fibrinogen, which are released when inflammation is present.

When is the test used?

The ESR is an effective, inexpensive test which can be used to help diagnose both acute and chronic inflammation and conditions which are associated with inflammation, including cancer, autoimmune diseases and certain types of infection. The ESR test is usually ordered alongside other tests, as it is not generally suitable for diagnosing specific conditions and infections; however, it is useful in diagnosing two specific conditions: polymyalgia rheumatica (a condition which causes stiffness and pain in the shoulders and neck and other parts of the body; it is most common amongst women over the age of 50) and temporal arteritis (inflammation of the arteries in the head).

The test is usually ordered when a doctor suspects that a patient has polymyalgia rheumatica or temporal arteritis; symptoms include headaches, neck and shoulder pain, stiffness, anaemia, unexplained weight loss and pain in the pelvis.

How is the test done?

The test is performed by inserting a needle into a vein in the arm (usually on the inside of the elbow as the veins are more prominent here), drawing out the blood and collecting it in a syringe. Once the sample has been collected, it will be bottled, labelled with the patient’s name and sent away to the laboratory for testing.

What do the test results mean?

If levels of ESR are very high, this usually indicates the presence of an infection. If levels are higher than usual, this usually indicates inflammation; however, high levels may also be associated with anaemia and pregnancy. Old age may also cause ESR results to rise. Further tests will be carried out to help the doctors reach an accurate diagnosis.

Low levels of ESR are not usually considered a problem; however, they may be associated with polycythaemia, which occurs when a patient makes too many red blood cells.

Specific Blood Tests

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