The erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) test is a commonly-administered blood test that can reveal inflammatory processes in the body. The test measures how quickly red blood cells sink to the bottom of a test tube of blood. Inflammation causes higher amounts of protein in the blood, causing red blood cells to “clump.” These clumps are heavier than regular blood cells, and therefore settle to the bottom of the test tube at a faster rate in people afflicted with inflammatory diseases.
Although the ESR test is nonspecific, meaning the specific cause of the inflammatory response is not indicated by the test, it nevertheless informs the doctor of the need for further testing to determine the cause of inflammation.
The normal reference range for ESR is 1-13 mm/hr for males and 1-20 mm/hr for females. The normal range changes with age, as is expected since some degree of increased inflammation is usually found among older people. But for those whose ESR level falls outside of the normal range, the possibility of disease requires further investigation.
People with low ESR levels may suffer from leukemia; congestive heart failure; or an increase in blood thickness, known as hyperviscosity; among other conditions.
People with elevated ESR levels may suffer from any of a number of inflammatory diseases, for example, rheumatoid arthritis, anemia, thyroid disease, kidney disease, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma.
While ESR levels outside of the normal range do not always indicate serious illness, an out-of-range result will alert your doctor to check for underlying conditions.
With the availability of so many tests that can uncover potentially serious conditions, it is important to be proactive, visit your doctor regularly, and be willing to withstand the discomfort of a needle prick in exchange for the important information a blood test can provide. The earlier the diagnosis of any condition, the greater the likelihood of a good outcome.
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