Polymyalgia rheumatica (poly-rheu) is a bit of a mouthful to say, but it’s also a form of inflammatory disorder characterized by muscle pain and stiffness around the neck and shoulders. The condition can be likened to “arthritis of the muscles,” in the sense that it can result in stiffness and mobility issues capable of interfering with daily life, but it is also different in several key respects.
Since polymyalgia rheumatica is not commonly thought of, and even less commonly pronounced, understanding how to recognize the condition can be important if you have begun to experience unexplained muscle pains.
What Are the Symptoms of Polymyalgia Rheumatica (Poly-Rheu)?
With cases of poly-rheu, the first symptom is often aches and pains in the shoulders, followed by stiffness. This can spread over time to other parts of the body, eventually affecting your neck, arms, hips, thighs, and even buttocks. The stiffness can be especially pronounced in the morning upon getting up or after any period of inactivity. The stiffness and pain can develop to the point that you begin to experience more limited mobility in the affected areas, and your joints can sometimes be affected in less common cases.
These symptoms do sound a lot like those from arthritis and can be mistaken for them. However, polymyalgia rheumatica can come with more traditional illness-related symptoms that help make it stand out from arthritic problems. Namely, poly-rheu is known to also cause effects like mild fever, loss of appetite, unexpected weight loss, fatigue, anemia, and malaise—a general feeling of being unwell.
Another way that poly-rheu stands out is that symptoms develop rather quickly. The condition has been known to seemingly pop up overnight and develop over just a few days.
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Polymyalgia Rheumatica Causes
There is no known cause for poly-rheu, but genetics are assumed to either be a cause or otherwise increase a person’s likelihood of developing the condition. It is also theorized that there is an environmental component since new cases of poly-rheu have a habit of occurring cyclically, which suggests something seasonal may be involved.
Also, although it is not considered a symptom per se, poly-rheu has an association with a condition called “giant cell arteritis,” also called temporal arteritis. It’s characterized by inflammation of the arteries, mostly the ones in the temples, and results in headaches, jaw pain, vision problems, and tenderness of the scalp. An abnormally large portion of patients with poly-rheu have signs of temporal arteritis (20%), and vice-versa (50%). It is theorized that this may be due to the two actually being different presentations of the same condition, but until more is learned they remain separate but possibly linked ailments.
In terms of risk factors, age is a definite one to consider since poly-rheu almost exclusively affects older individuals and the average age of onset is 70. Women are also twice as likely to develop polymyalgia as men, and the condition is most frequently seen among whites of northern European descent.
How Is Polymyalgia Rheumatica Diagnosed?
Since polymyalgia rheumatica has several symptoms that overlap with other inflammatory conditions, it’s important to seek a doctor’s diagnosis so you can be sure you don’t have something else. Diagnosis is done through a mixture of physical and lab tests.
- Physical Tests: You will likely be asked to move your limbs and neck so the doctor can assess your range of motion. Affected areas may be checked for tenderness, swelling, or other symptoms that could suggest causes other than poly-rheu.
- Blood Tests: When the body has an inflammatory reaction, it leaves behind certain signs that can be detected with a blood test.
- Imaging: An ultrasound can produce images that the doctor can not only check for signs of inflammation but help distinguish polymyalgia from conditions with similar symptoms. MRI scans may also be used to check for any degenerative changes in your joints.
- Biopsy: This would only be done if your doctor wants to check for temporal arteritis. The biopsy will see a small part of an artery in the temple removed and sent for analysis.
Natural Home Remedies for Polymyalgia Rheumatica
While there’s no specific cure, polymyalgia rheumatica treatments can be used to ease symptoms and are capable of producing relief within two days. The most commonly prescribed treatments are corticosteroids to reduce inflammation and pain relievers to help with discomfort. You can also try over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory pain medications, but they are generally insufficient in treating polymyalgia rheumatica symptoms.
It takes around a year of treatment to send polymyalgia into remission, although up to 60% of people will see at least one relapse during this time. During the treatment process, it’s important to stay in touch with your doctor regularly so they can properly monitor your progress and adjust the dosages as needed.
One natural treatment for polymyalgia rheumatica is whole licorice, which can help with inflammation, but be sure to check with your doctor first if you have high blood pressure, as whole licorice could make it worse. Some Chinese medicine techniques may help, as well as guided imagery and hypnotherapy. Adhering to an anti-inflammatory diet can also help.
Polymyalgia Rheumatica Diet and Lifestyle Changes
Long-term use of corticosteroids comes with certain side effects that your doctor will be monitoring during your treatment. To help minimize these effects and to better cope with them, consider some of the following lifestyle adjustments.
- Assistive Devices: Using assistive tools like reaching aids or shower bars during the treatment period is beneficial for two reasons. The first is that it will take time for the treatment to restore your mobility, so any help is always appreciated. The second is that corticosteroids can reduce bone density and put you at risk for osteoporosis, so minimizing strain or risk of falls can go a long way.
- Exercise: In addition to helping improve your strength and circulation in general, proper exercise can help alleviate the weight gain that corticosteroids can cause. Exercise can also help strengthen the bones.
- Physical Therapy: Depending on how long you have had your mobility restricted by poly-rheu; physical therapy may be advisable so you can better adjust to regaining your range of motion.
- Dietary Changes: Corticosteroids can result in high blood pressure and diabetes, meaning you will need to adjust your diet to mitigate these risks. Focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat meat, and dairy while limiting the salt you consume to help keep blood pressure in check. Calcium and vitamin D are also important, so foods rich in the former and supplements for the latter are advisable to help retain bone density.
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