What is polymyalgia rheumatica?
Polymyalgia rheumatica is a common inflammatory condition that causes painful muscles and joints. It is characterised by moderate to severe pain and stiffness, mainly in the shoulders, hips and thighs. It is often accompanied by feeling tired and unwell. The good news is that polymyalgia rheumatica does not cause permanent damage to the joints.
The cause of the condition is not known. Research is ongoing into the role of genetics, immune system abnormalities, and environmental factors.
Polymyalgia rheumatica affects twice as many women as men and usually occurs over the age of 50. It often strikes suddenly, appearing over a week or two and sometimes after a flu-like illness.
What are the common symptoms of polymyalgia rheumatica?
- Pain and stiffness in the muscles and joints
- Low-grade fever
- Swollen joints
- Weight loss
In about 15% of cases, polymyalgia rheumatica is associated with inflammation of the arteries in the head, known as temporal arteritis or giant cell arteritis (GCA). You should call your doctor immediately if you have any of these symptoms: severe headaches, jaw pain, blurred or double vision or tenderness of the scalp.
How can I manage my polymyalgia rheumatica?
The usual course of this disease is two to four years. Effective treatments are available and in most cases people recover completely.
Corticosteroid treatment is very effective for polymyalgia rheumatica, usually relieving systems within 24 to 48 hours. Your doctor will monitor the dose and gradually reduce it until all symptoms disappear. The amount of time needed is different for each person.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) may be useful to relieve mild symptoms but are not as effective as corticosteroids.
- Balance activity and rest – plan and pace daily activities by breaking them into small manageable tasks with regular rest breaks to reduce tiredness and pain
- Exercise – activity usually helps ease morning stiffness. Physiotherapy may be helpful to maintain mobility and reduce pain
- Nutrition – corticosteroids reduce the amount of calcium absorbed from the gut and lost through the kidneys. This can increase the risk of osteoporosis. A daily intake of 1500mg daily from food is recommended; Vitamin D supplements may also help
- Relaxation – there are various techniques that ease muscle tension and reduce stress. Learn what works for you
- Seek support from an arthritis educator at Arthritis New Zealand, your doctor, pharmacist, rheumatologist, friends and family as you learn more about polymyalgia rheumatica and how to manage it