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A Guide to the ESR Blood Test

written by: Leigh A. Zaykoski•edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski•updated: 3/19/2012

The ESR blood test is an important tool that helps doctors diagnose conditions that can cause inflammation, pain and other symptoms. Find out how the test is used and what can alter the results.

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    Doctors usually order an ESR blood test, among other blood tests, to evaluate a patient whose symptoms suggest conditions that will affect the erythrocyte sedimentation rate. These symptoms include neck and shoulder pain, anemia, weight loss that is not explained by an improved diet or increased exercise, headaches, and stiffness of the joints. Some doctors order this test before a patient undergoes a surgical procedure. Liposuction risks, for example, make it necessary for plastic surgeons to determine ESR levels prior to performing the procedure.

    The erythrocyte sedimentation rate is a nonspecific marker of inflammation, so the test result must be used in conjunction with other medical information. If the ESR test result and clinical information match, the doctor may be able to make a diagnosis or rule out an incorrect diagnosis.

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    Normal Results

    What is considered a normal ESR blood test result depends on a person's age and gender. For men under 50, the normal result is a result of less than 15 mm per hour. For women in the same age group, the normal result is considered to be less than 20 mm per hour.

    What is considered normal changes as a person ages. For men over the age of 50, the normal test result is less than 20 mm per hour. For women in the over 50 age group, the normal result is less than 30 mm per hour.

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    Abnormal Test Results

    The ESR blood test can have an abnormal result for many reasons. Some of the conditions that can cause an abnormal result include chronic kidney disease, pregnancy, lupus and other autoimmune diseases, thyroid disease, and other conditions that cause inflammation of body tissues.

    Some conditions cause extremely high ESR levels. These conditions include blood vessel death, giant cell arteritis, multiple myeloma, and increased blood fibrogen levels.

    Some conditions can cause low ESR levels. These conditions include decreased fibrinogen, sickle cell anemia, and congestive heart failure. Most of these are severe conditions, so your doctor will need to follow you once your ESR test results come back from the laboratory.

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    False Results

    There are many conditions that can cause the results of the ESR test to be skewed. These conditions are primarily inflammatory in nature, which can cause ESR levels to be inaccurate.

    Examples of conditions that can contribute to false ESR results include endometritis, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, percarditis, and thyroiditis. If you have any of these conditions, your doctor will perform other laboratory tests and diagnostic tests along with a test for ESR levels to determine what is causing your medical symptoms.