Connective Tissue Diseases - Systemic Autoimmune Rheumatic Diseases

Last Literature Review: April 2021 Last Update:

Medical Experts


Connective tissue or systemic autoimmune rheumatic diseases (SARDs) are characterized by autoantibodies that can affect tissues and organs throughout the body. Laboratory testing for antinuclear antibodies (ANAs) and specific autoantibodies associated with the presence of SARDs may be useful in the evaluation of these diseases.  The SARDS include systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), Sjögren syndrome, mixed connective tissue disease/undifferentiated connective tissue disease, systemic sclerosis (also referred to as scleroderma), idiopathic inflammatory myopathies  (including polymyositis, dermatomyositis, and necrotizing autoimmune), and overlap syndromes (OSs).

Quick Answers for Clinicians

Who should be tested for connective tissue or systemic autoimmune rheumatic diseases?

Patients with connective tissue or systemic autoimmune rheumatic diseases (SARDs) may present with very different signs and symptoms, depending on disease type and which tissues and organ systems are affected. For example, patients with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) may present with rash or photosensitivity,  whereas those with Sjögren syndrome may report dry mouth and dry eyes. See Indications for Testing for common indications of various SARDs.

Testing is particularly important in children with suspected SARDs because of the growth and development issues associated with these diseases.

Which lab tests should be used if a systemic autoimmune rheumatic disease is suspected?

Testing for antinuclear antibodies (ANAs) and autoantibodies associated with ANA presence may assist in the diagnosis of a systemic autoimmune rheumatic disease (SARD); these tests are best used in individuals with a high pretest probability of having a SARD.  The gold standard ANA test is the indirect fluorescent antibody (IFA) assay.   Although labor intensive and subjective, it offers high sensitivity  and is recommended by the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) as important for the evaluation of a number of SARDs.  Methods other than IFA for the detection of ANAs (eg, immunoassays) are generally less sensitive for SARDs but offer greater specificities, faster turnaround times, and more objectivity.  (See the Comparison of ANA Testing Methods table.) If an ANA evaluation results in a negative immunoassay and a positive IFA assay, the reported ANA pattern and titer, along with the patient’s clinical history and presentation, may be useful in determining which autoantibody test(s) to perform for disease confirmation. If an ANA evaluation results in a positive immunoassay and a negative IFA assay, the positive predictive value for SARDs is generally low.

How are antinuclear antibody tests interpreted?

Interpretation of antinuclear antibody (ANA) tests is based on common ANA patterns that have shown consistent correlation with systemic autoimmune rheumatic diseases (SARDs). The International Consensus on ANA Patterns  has comprehensive information on patterns.

Indications for Testing

The following SARDs may manifest with these indications:

Laboratory Testing


Antinuclear Antibody Testing

ANA testing should be performed in the initial evaluation of SARDs.  Antibodies in SARDs can target the nucleus as well as any intracellular components of the cell, most notably the cytoplasm. ANA tests are best used for individuals with a high pretest probability of having a SARD   because ANA reactivity may be present in healthy patients as well as those with certain infections, cancer, and other autoimmune diseases. 

The gold standard for ANA testing is the indirect fluorescent antibody (IFA) assay,  performed in a lab experienced with ANA testing. ANA test interpretation is based on common ANA patterns that have shown consistent correlation with SARDs. Nuclear patterns reported by ARUP Laboratories include homogeneous, speckled, centromere, nucleolar, and nuclear dots; cytoplasmic patterns reported by ARUP Laboratories include reticular/antimichondrial antibody (AMA), speckled, discrete dots/GW body-like, golgi/polar, and rods/rings (see table below). The International Consensus on ANA Patterns  has comprehensive information on patterns, targets, and clinical associations. ANA IFA reports should include the method, type of substrate, results obtained (including qualitative response [positive or negative]), pattern(s) observed, and their titers.

In cases of high clinical suspicion for SARDs, specific autoantibody testing should be performed, even if ANA testing is negative. 

ANA Patterns, Autoantibody Targets, and Clinical Associations
Patterns Primary Autoantibody Targets Clinical Associations
Nuclear Patterns
Homogeneous dsDNA, chromatin, Scl-70 (in some cases) SLE, SSc, AIH, JIA
Speckled Smith, Sm/RNP, Scl-70, SSA-52 (Ro52), SSA-60 (Ro60), SSB (La), RNA polymerase III, Ku SjS, SLE, DM, SSc, PM/SSc OS, MCTD, UCTD
Centromere CENP-Aa, CENP-B SSc, PBC/SSc OS
Nucleolar Fibrillarin, RNA polymerase III, PM/Scl-100, Th/To,a Scl-70 (in some cases) SSc, PM/SSc OS, Raynaud phenomenon, SjS, cancer, other SARD
Nuclear dots Sp-100, PML,a NXP-2 (MORC3 or MJ) PBC, DM, other inflammatory conditions
Cytoplasmic Patterns
Speckledb EJ, Jo-1, OJ, PL-7, PL-12, MDA5, ribosomal P, SRP SLE, SjS, CTD-ILD, IIM, Raynaud phenomenon
Discrete dots/GW body-like Anti-GW182,b anti-Su/Agob Neurologic conditions, SjS, SLE, RA, PBC, UCTD
Golgi/polar Giantin/macrogolgin,b golgin-95/GM130,b golgin-160,b golgin-97,b golgin-245c SLE, SjS, RA, OSs, cerebellar ataxia
Rods/rings IMPDH2b HCV treated with pegylated interferon-α/ribavirin combination therapy

aIncludes fine speckled and dense fine speckled cytoplasmic patterns.

bNo confirmatory tests are performed at ARUP Laboratories.

AIH, autoimmune hepatitis; CTD, connective tissue disease; DM, dermatomyositis; HCV, hepatitis C virus; IIM, idiopathic inflammatory myopathies; ILD, interstitial lung disease; JIA, juvenile idiopathic arthritis; MCTD, mixed connective tissue disease; PBC, primary biliary cholangitis; RA, rheumatoid arthritis; PM, polymyositis; OS, overlap syndrome; RA, rheumatoid arthritis; SjS, Sjögren syndrome; SRP, signal recognition particle; SSc, systemic sclerosis; UCTD, undifferentiated connective tissue disease

Sources: Tebo, 2017 ; Damoiseaux, 2019 

In addition to IFA ANA testing, other testing options are available. See table below for comparison of ANA testing methods.

Comparison of ANA Testing Methods
Method Advantages Disadvantages

Preferred method

Strong screening tool; resulting patterns can guide confirmatory testing for specific diagnosis or prognosis

Labor intensive

Subjective (in titer and pattern recognition)

Reagents not well standardized

Has limited diagnostic specificity

Requires significant expertise to interpret

Appropriate cutoff value for positivity not established


Commonly available

Specificities for SARDs may be affected by limited antigenic targets

Offers faster TAT

More objective than IFA

High throughput

Has lower sensitivity than IFA

Clinical performances of commercial ELISAs vary

May not be useful in assessing ALDs or SARDs that target complex autoantigens


More sensitive than ELISA

Easier to automate than ELISA

Wide analytical measurement range (vs ELISA)

Offers faster TAT

More objective than IFA

High throughput

May not be useful in assessing ALDs or SARDs that target complex autoantigens

Has lower sensitivity than IFA

Multiplex assay (LIA, MBA)

Can detect multiple independent antibodies associated with ANAs

Can be automated

Can provide quantitative or qualitative results

Faster TAT

More objective than IFA

High throughput

Useful in analyzing autoantibody clusters and evaluating diseases with multiple autoantibody specificities (vs. ELISA)

Has lower sensitivity than IFA

Diagnostic accuracies differ among immunoassays

LIA is not as technologically sophisticated as MBA

ALDs, autoimmune liver diseases; CLIA, chemiluminescence immunoassay; ELISA, enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay; LIA, line immunoassay; MBA, multiplexed bead assay; TAT, turnaround time

Source: Tebo, 2017 


Once a SARD has been diagnosed, monitoring tests should be based on organ involvement. If cytopenias are present, the patient should be monitored with sequential CBCs. Certain drugs used for treatment require testing for liver function. In addition, patients should be monitored for malignancy.  Dermatomyositis and mixed connective tissue disease have shown increased risk for malignancy, and Sjögren syndrome is specifically associated with an increased risk for hematologic malignancy. 

ARUP Laboratory Tests

Preferred Initial Screening Tests for SARDs

For more information, see the Antinuclear Antibody (ANA) with HEp-2 Substrate Test Fact Sheet.

Confirmatory Tests for Specific and More Common SARDs

Panel includes dsDNA, IgG; Smith/RNP, IgG; Smith (ENA), IgG; SSA 52 and 60, IgG; SSB, IgG; Jo-1, IgG; Scl-70, IgG

Disease-Specific Panels

Quantitative Immunoturbidimetry/Semi-Quantitative Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay/Semi-Quantitative Indirect Fluorescent Antibody/Quantitative Chemiluminescent Immunoassay/Semi-Quantitative Multiplex Bead Assay