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Polymyalgia Rheumatica

What Is It? & Symptoms

Monday, Aug. 27, 2007; 7:46 PM

Copyright Harvard Health Publications 2007

What Is It?

Polymyalgia is a form of arthritis that causes pain in the muscles of the lower back, thighs, hips, neck, shoulder and upper arms, as well as in other parts of the body. The word comes from the Greek poly (many), myo (muscle) and algia (pain). It happens when the membrane that surrounds joints, bursa and tendons near the shoulders and hips (called the synovium) becomes inflamed. Although the disease is centered on the joints (especially the shoulders and hips), the discomfort is felt in the upper arms and thighs. This type of pain is called referred pain because it arises in one area but causes symptoms in another.

Typically, polymyalgia rheumatica affects people older than 55, with slightly more women affected than men. Left untreated, it can lead to stiffness and significant disability. In some cases, though, symptoms do not get worse and may even lessen in a few years. In a minority of cases, polymyalgia rheumatica is associated with giant cell arteritis, a condition in which blood vessels in the neck and head, and sometimes elsewhere, are inflamed. Common symptoms of giant cell arteritis include visual complaints, jaw pain with chewing and headache. If left untreated, giant cell arteritis can lead to blindness or other complications.


Symptoms of polymyalgia rheumatica can include:

  • Sudden pain and stiffness in the shoulders, upper arms, neck, lower back, hips and thighs that tends to be worse in the morning

  • Low-grade fever

  • Joint swelling, for example, in the wrists

  • Difficulty walking

  • Weight loss

  • Fatigue

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