Polymyalgia Rheumatica

oPatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

Polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR) is an inflammatory condition of unknown cause which is characterised by severe bilateral pain and morning stiffness of the shoulder, neck and pelvic girdle.[1][2] There is some controversy as to whether or not PMR represents a form of giant cell arteritis (GCA). However, the balance of evidence would appear to suggest that they are two distinct and relatively common diseases which often co-exist and which share many common features.[3]

  • The incidence of the disease in patients aged over 50 is about 100 per 100,000.[4]
  • Polymyalgia rheumatica occurs almost exclusively in people aged above 50, and the mean age of onset is about 73.[1] 
  • PMR is seen mainly in people of north European ancestry, although it can occur in any ethnic group.[4]
  • Women are more frequently affected than men, with a female:male ratio of approximately 3:1.

The cause of polymyalgia rheumatica is unknown. Studies suggest that both genetic and environmental factors might be important in disease pathogenesis. Familial aggregation is rare but has been described.

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The presenting symptoms are nonspecific but PMR should be suspected in patients aged over 65 who have subacute to acute onset of bilateral, severe and persistent pain in the neck, shoulders and pelvic girdle. Core inclusion criteria for a diagnosis of PMR include:[5]

  • Age over 50 years and duration of symptoms more than two weeks.
  • Bilateral shoulder or pelvic girdle aching, or both.
  • Morning stiffness duration of more than 45 minutes' duration.
  • Evidence of an acute-phase response (raised ESR/CRP).
  • PMR can be diagnosed with a normal ESR and/or CRP if there is a classic clinical picture and response to steroids. These patients should be referred for specialist assessment.[5]

The most characteristic presenting feature of PMR is bilateral shoulder pain and stiffness of acute or subacute onset with bilateral upper arm tenderness.[4] Other symptoms and signs may include:

  • Pain on active and passive movement of joints (shoulders 70-95%, hips and neck 50-70%).
  • Morning stiffness; stiffness after periods of rest and morning stiffness of more than one hour are typical.[4]
  • Systemic symptoms, especially present at the onset of the disease; these include lethargy, loss of appetite, weight loss, low-grade fever and depression.[4]
  • Mild asymmetrical synovitis - may occur, especially in the wrists and knees.
  • Oedema of hands, wrists, ankles and feet.
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome.

Muscle weakness is not a feature of the disease but disuse atrophy may occur with protracted and untreated symptoms.[4]

Inflammatory disorders

Non-inflammatory disorders

Investigations are essential to support the diagnosis of PMR but also to rule out any other possible diagnosis. Investigations which will be useful in making a diagnosis of PMR include:

  • Inflammatory markers (ESR, plasma viscosity and/or CRP):[1] 
    • Raised inflammatory markers are characteristic laboratory finding in PMR, but may be normal.
    • CRP is more sensitive than ESR.
  • FBC: anaemia of chronic disease may be present.
  • Other investigations before starting steroid treatment include renal function, electrolytes, LFTs, bone profile, protein electrophoresis (and possibly Bence Jones' protein), TFTs, creatine kinase, autoantibodies, urinalysis and CXR.[5]
  • Ultrasound scan of the hip and shoulders:[4]
    • Ultrasound scanning shows characteristic pathological findings of the shoulders and hips that can help distinguish PMR from other diseases.
    • Typical findings on ultrasound include subdeltoid bursitis and biceps tendon tenosynovitis of the shoulders and, less frequently, synovitis of the glenohumeral joint.
    • In the hips, ultrasound often reveals synovitis and trochanteric bursitis.
  • Other diagnostic tests, such as magnetic resonance imaging and bone and radionuclide labelled bone and joint scanning, have been used in case series to evaluate PMR, but their clinical usefulness has yet to be established.[4]
  • Consider GCA (temporal arteritis) in all people with PMR.
  • Symptoms of GCA include new headache, jaw claudication (jaw muscle pain on chewing), and visual disturbance.
  • The temporal artery may be abnormal to palpation; biopsy of this artery usually yields characteristic findings of vascular inflammation. Such a biopsy should be considered in any patient with polymyalgic symptoms and new headache.
  • Glucocorticosteroids are the only known effective treatment. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents are of little value for the management of this disease.
  • Lack of complete response to recommended doses of prednisone, as well as atypical clinical features (younger age, muscle weakness, peripheral joint disease, and predominance of pain with little or no stiffness), should lead to consideration of alternative diagnoses.
  • There is little evidence for the efficacy of steroid-sparing agents - eg, methotrexate or anti-tumour necrosis factor agents. Methotrexate is the most commonly used corticosteroid sparing agent.[6] 
  • Manage any residual physical or psychosocial disability caused by the disease. Patients with PMR are frequently elderly and may have mobility problems and difficulty with many aspects of daily living. Many patients will benefit from referral to a physiotherapist and occupational therapist for assessment.
  • Monitor response to steroid treatment by:
    • Improvements in symptoms: morning stiffness, proximal hip and girdle pain, disability related to PMR
    • Adverse events including osteoporotic stress fractures
    • Symptoms and signs suggesting an alternative diagnosis
    • Laboratory markers: CRP and ESR

Steroid therapy[5]

  • Unlike GCA, urgent institution of steroid therapy is not necessary and can be delayed to allow full assessment. However, if the patient does present with symptoms suspicious of GCA, then urgent institution of high-dose steroid therapy is required.
  • Patients should be assessed for response to an initial dose of prednisolone 15 mg daily orally. A patient-reported global improvement of at least 70% within a week of commencing steroids is consistent with PMR, with normalisation of inflammatory markers in four weeks. A lesser response should prompt the search for an alternative condition.
  • Recommended treatment regime:
    • The suggested regimen is daily prednisolone 15 mg for three weeks; then 12.5 mg for three weeks; then 10 mg for four to six weeks; then reduction by 1 mg every four to eight weeks or alternate day reductions (eg, 10/7.5 mg on alternate days).
    • It is important to treat the patient's symptoms and not to rely exclusively on the inflammatory markers to guide treatment. A persistently or recurrently raised ESR or CRP may indicate an underlying or intercurrent disease.
    • After the first few months of treatment, once the disease is controlled, asymptomatic patients with persistently raised inflammatory markers should not continue to be treated with high doses of prednisone just to reduce these markers.
    • The recommended continuing dose of prednisone is the lowest dose that keeps symptoms in remission. Patients with chronic disease are usually maintained on 2.5-5 mg prednisone daily.
    • Glucocorticosteroids are often needed for two to three years, although about 10% of patients will relapse within ten years and require longer courses of treatment.
  • Adverse effects of treatment:
    • Glucocorticosteroid-related adverse events are common and include osteoporosis, avascular necrosis, infections, diabetes, insufficiency fractures, steroid myopathies, hypertension, hyperlipidaemia and cataracts.
    • Drug-related side-effects include hyperlipidaemia, and osteoporosis. These side-effects must be monitored and measures should be taken to prevent and manage them.
    • Overtreatment with corticosteroids is often the result of underlying degenerative symptoms being misinterpreted as persistent PMR, or a persistently raised ESR being attributed to underlying active disease.

Prevention and treatment of steroid-induced osteoporosis[5]

See also the separate article on Osteoporosis Risk Assessment and Primary Prevention.

  • Individuals with high fracture risk - eg, aged 65 years or older or prior fragility fracture:
    • Bisphosphonate with calcium and vitamin D supplementation.
    • Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) scan is not required.
  • Patients without high fracture risk:
    • Calcium and vitamin D supplementation when starting steroid therapy.
    • DEXA scan is recommended. Bisphosphonates may be indicated if T score is 1.5 or lower.
  • Individuals requiring higher initial steroid dose:
    • Bisphosphonate with calcium and vitamin D supplementation (higher cumulative steroid dose is likely).

Specialist referral is recommended for:[7] 

Atypical clinical presentations:

  • Patient aged under 60 years
  • Chronic onset
  • Lack of shoulder involvement
  • Lack of inflammatory stiffness
  • 'Red flag' features: prominent systemic features, weight loss, night pain, neurological signs
  • Peripheral arthritis or other features of autoimmune or muscle disease
  • Normal or very high (ESR/CRP above 100) inflammatory markers 

Treatment dilemmas:

  • Incomplete or non-response to corticosteroids
  • Ill-sustained response
  • Unable to reduce corticosteroid dose
  • Need for prolonged corticosteroid therapy (longer than two years)
  • Contra-indications to corticosteroid therapy

However, patients with a typical clinical picture and complete sustained response to treatment, and no adverse events can be managed in primary care.[8] 

  • Recommended follow-up schedule: weeks 0, 1-3, 6; months 3, 6, 9, 12 in the first year (with extra visits for relapses or adverse events). Patients should continue to be regularly monitored whilst on steroids.
  • Clinical assessment: at each visit, patients should be assessed for:
    • Response to treatment: proximal pain, fatigue and morning stiffness
    • Complications of disease including symptoms of GCA - eg, headaches, jaw claudication and large-vessel disease
    • Steroid-related adverse events
    • Atypical features or those suggesting an alternative diagnosis
  • Laboratory monitoring: FBC, ESR/CRP, U&Es, glucose.
  • Duration of treatment and follow-up:
    • Usually 1-3 years of treatment, although some will require small doses of steroids beyond this time
    • Steroids may be stopped when the patient is asymptomatic from their inflammatory symptoms
    • Isolated raised ESR or CRP is not an indication for continuing steroid therapy but may require investigation and referral
  • Persistent pain may arise from co-existing osteoarthritis and rotator cuff tears.

Relapse is the recurrence of symptoms of PMR or onset of GCA, and not just unexplained raised ESR or CRP. Treatment of relapse:

  • Clinical features of GCA: treat as GCA (usually oral prednisolone 40-60 mg daily) (see the separate article on Giant Cell Arteritis (Temporal Arteritis).
  • Clinical features of PMR: increase prednisolone to previous higher dose. Single intramuscular injection of methylprednisolone (Depo-Medrone®) 120 mg can also be used.
  • Further relapses: consider introducing immunosuppression therapy (eg, methotrexate) after two relapses.
  • The risk of GCA occurring while PMR is being treated is approximately 10-20%.
  • The course and prognosis of PMR are very variable. Response to systemic corticosteroids is rapid and dramatic but treatment for 1-2 years is often required, and some people may need low-dose corticosteroids for longer periods.
  • Relapse is common, but responds to restarting or increasing the dose of systemic corticosteroids.
  • PMR is not associated with increased mortality but morbidity and mortality may occur as a result of immunosuppression or steroid side-effects.

Further reading & references

  1. Kermani TA, Warrington KJ; Polymyalgia rheumatica. Lancet. 2013 Jan 5;381(9860):63-72. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(12)60680-1. Epub 2012 Oct 8.
  2. Polymyalgia rheumatica; NICE CKS, May 2009
  3. Gonzalez-Gay MA; Giant cell arteritis and polymyalgia rheumatica: two different but often overlapping conditions. Semin Arthritis Rheum. 2004 Apr;33(5):289-93.
  4. Michet CJ, Matteson EL; Polymyalgia rheumatica. BMJ. 2008 Apr 5;336(7647):765-9.
  5. Management of polymyalgia rheumatica; British Society for Rheumatology (November 2009)
  6. Gonzalez-Gay MA, Agudo M, Martinez-Dubois C, et al; Medical management of polymyalgia rheumatica. Expert Opin Pharmacother. 2010 May;11(7):1077-87. doi: 10.1517/14656561003724739.
  7. Diagnosis and management of polymyalgia rheumatica; Royal College of Physicians (June 2010)
  8. van Hecke O; Polymyalgia rheumatica -- diagnosis and management. Aust Fam Physician. 2011 May;40(5):303-6.
  9. Osteoporosis - steroid-induced; NICE CKS, June 2009

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Hayley Willacy
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Dr John Cox
Last Checked:
08/07/2013
Document ID:
2630 (v27)
© EMIS