Introduction

Polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR) is a condition that causes pain, stiffness and inflammation in the muscles around the shoulders, neck and hips.

This page covers:

Symptoms of polymyalgia rheumatica

The main symptom is muscle stiffness in the morning that lasts longer than 45 minutes. It may also cause other symptoms, including:

  • extreme tiredness
  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss
  • depression

See your GP if you have pain and stiffness for more than a week. They'll try to find out what's causing it.

Diagnosing polymyalgia rheumatica can be difficult because the symptoms are similar to those of many other conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis. These conditions will need to be ruled out before polymyalgia rheumatic is diagnosed.

Read more about the symptoms of polymyalgia rheumatica and diagnosing polymyalgia rheumatica.

What causes polymyalgia rheumatica?

The cause of polymyalgia rheumatica is unknown, but a combination of genetic and environmental factors is thought to be responsible.

Polymyalgia rheumatica is age-related. Most people diagnosed with it are over 70, and it's very rare in people younger than 50. It's also more common in women than men.

It's estimated 1 in every 1,200 people in the UK develop the condition every year.

Treating polymyalgia rheumatica

corticosteroid medication called prednisolone is the main treatment for polymyalgia rheumatica. It's used to help relieve the symptoms.

You'll initially be prescribed a moderate dose of prednisolone, which will be gradually reduced over time.

Most people with polymyalgia rheumatica will need to take a course of corticosteroid treatment that lasts 18 months to two years to prevent their symptoms returning.

Read more about treating polymyalgia rheumatica.

Giant cell arteritis

Around one in five people with polymyalgia rheumatica develop a more serious condition called giant cell arteritis, in which the arteries in the head and neck become inflamed.

Symptoms of giant cell arteritis include:

  • a severe headache that develops suddenly – your scalp may also feel sore or tender
  • pain in the jaw muscles when eating
  • problems with sight – such as double vision or loss of vision

If you have any of these symptoms, contact your GP immediately, or call NHS Direct Wales on 0845 46 47.

Unlike polymyalgia rheumatica, giant cell arteritis requires immediate medical attention. This is because it can cause permanent sight loss if not treated promptly.

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Symptoms

The most common symptom of polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR) is pain and stiffness in the shoulder muscles, which develops quickly over a few days or weeks.

You may also have pain in your neck and hips. Both sides of the body are usually affected.

The stiffness often feels worse first thing in the morning after you wake up, and starts to improve after about 45 minutes as you become more active.

Some people with polymyalgia rheumatica have additional symptoms, including:

  • feeling very tired
  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss
  • depression

When to get medical advice

See your GP if you have symptoms of pain and stiffness that last longer than a week. They'll investigate the cause.

When to get immediate medical advice

Contact your GP immediately, or call NHS Direct Wales on 0845 46 47, if you've been diagnosed with polymyalgia rheumatica (or it's suspected) and you suddenly develop:

  • a severe headache that doesn't go away
  • pain or cramping in your jaw muscles that's worse when eating
  • pain in your tongue when chewing
  • vision loss or vision disturbances, such as double vision

These symptoms may indicate a more serious condition called giant cell arteritis (temporal arteritis).

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Diagnosis

Diagnosing polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR) can often be quite a lengthy process involving several different tests.

This is because the condition shares many symptoms with more common health conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, which need to be ruled out first.

Tests

There's no specific test for polymyalgia rheumatica, but it's likely that a series of blood tests will be carried out.

Two blood tests – erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) and C-reactive protein (CRP) – can be used to check the levels of inflammation in your body.

If the ESR and CRP test results are normal, it’s unlikely that polymyalgia rheumatica will be diagnosed.

Sometimes the ESR may be normal and the CRP may be raised, which would be more likely to indicate a positive diagnosis. This is why both tests are usually carried out at the same time.

As inflammation is a feature of many conditions, high levels don't automatically mean you have polymyalgia rheumatica.

Further tests may be needed to help rule out other conditions that cause inflammation. For example, a test for rheumatoid factor and anti-CCP antibodies may be carried out to rule out rheumatoid arthritis.

Blood tests can also help determine:

You may also have a urine test to check how well your kidneys are functioning.

X-rays and ultrasound scans may also be used to look at the condition of your bones and joints.

Symptom checklist

After other possible causes of your symptoms have been ruled out, a checklist can be used to see whether your symptoms match those most commonly associated with polymyalgia rheumatica.

A confident diagnosis of polymyalgia rheumatica can usually be made if you meet all of the following criteria:

  • you're over 50 years of age
  • you have pain in your shoulders or your hips
  • you have stiffness in the morning that lasts longer than 45 minutes
  • your symptoms have lasted for more than two weeks
  • blood tests show raised levels of inflammation in your body
  • your symptoms rapidly improve after treatment with corticosteroids
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Treatment

Steroid medication is the main treatment for polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR).

A type of corticosteroid called prednisolone is usually prescribed.

Prednisolone

Prednisolone works by blocking the effects of certain chemicals that cause inflammation inside your body. It doesn't cure polymyalgia rheumatica, but it can help relieve the symptoms.

When used to treat polymyalgia rheumatica, prednisolone is taken as a tablet. Most people will be prescribed several tablets to take once a day.

You'll be prescribed a high dose of prednisolone to start with, and the dose will be gradually reduced every one to two months.

Although your symptoms should improve within a few days of starting treatment, you'll probably need to continue taking a low dose of prednisolone for about two years.

In many cases, polymyalgia rheumatica improves on its own after this time. However, there's a chance it will return after treatment stops, known as a relapse.

Don't suddenly stop taking steroid medication unless your doctor tells you it's safe to do so. Suddenly stopping treatment with steroids can make you very ill.

Side effects of prednisolone

About 1 in 20 people who take prednisolone will experience changes in their mental state when they take the medication.

You may feel depressed and suicidal, anxious or confused. Some people also experience hallucinations, which is seeing or hearing things that aren't there.

Contact your GP as soon as possible if you experience changes to your mental state.

Other side effects of prednisolone include:

You should seek immediate medical advice if you think you've been exposed to the varicella-zoster virus or if a member of your household develops chickenpox or shingles.

The risk of these side effects should improve as your dose of prednisolone is decreased.

See side effects of corticosteroids for more information about how these side effects may affect you and how they're treated.

Other medications

Sometimes other medicines may be combined with corticosteroids to help prevent relapses or allow your dose of prednisolone to be reduced.

Some people are prescribed immunosuppressant medication, such as methotrexate. This is used to suppress the immune system, the body's defence against infection and illness.

It may help people with polymyalgia rheumatica who have frequent relapses or don't respond to normal steroid treatment.

Your doctor may recommend painkillers, such as paracetamol or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), to help relieve your pain and stiffness while your dose of prednisolone is reduced.

Follow-up

You'll have regular follow-up appointments to check how well you're responding to treatment, whether your dose of prednisolone needs to be adjusted, and how well you're coping with the medication's side effects.

During these appointments, you'll have blood tests to check the levels of inflammation inside your body.

Follow-up appointments are usually recommended every few weeks for the first three months, and then at three- to six-monthly intervals after this time.

Contact your GP if your symptoms return during any part of your treatment. Your dosage may need to be adjusted.

Steroid card

If you need to take steroids for more than three weeks, your GP or pharmacist should arrange for you to be issued with a steroid card.

The card explains that you're regularly taking steroids and your dose shouldn't be stopped suddenly. You should carry the card with you at all times.

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The information on this page has been adapted by NHS Wales from original content supplied by NHS Choices.
Last Updated: 21/02/2017 09:11:33