Recognition and management of polymyalgia rheumatica and giant cell arteritis

Am Fam Physician. 2013 Nov 15;88(10):676-84.


Polymyalgia rheumatica affects proximal muscles and joints, causing disability in older adults. Giant cell arteritis affects medium and large arteries and can result in blindness. These conditions overlap significantly, often occurring together. Despite the similarities, each has distinct symptoms, corticosteroid dosing requirements, and prognosis. The hallmark of both conditions is inflammation. Polymyalgia rheumatica primarily affects the shoulders, neck, and hips with prominent bilateral pain. Systemic findings such as fatigue and weight loss are common, and there is no definitive diagnostic test. Moderate-dose corticosteroid therapy with a slow taper rapidly resolves symptoms. Management of patients responding to treatment can occur in the primary care setting, if there is no concomitant giant cell arteritis. The clinical presentation of giant cell arteritis varies widely, from new-onset headache and constitutional symptoms, to jaw claudication, to less common isolated visual changes and upper extremity claudication. Treatment requires higher dosages of corticosteroids and urgent referral to a rheumatologist. Relapse is common in both diseases. Surveillance is important, as is monitoring for long-term complications of corticosteroid use. Osteoporosis management and gastrointestinal ulcer prophylaxis should be initiated. The primary care physician's coordination of care with a rheumatologist and with other subspecialists, if needed, is essential in the management of giant cell arteritis.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones / therapeutic use
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents / therapeutic use
  • Biomarkers / blood
  • Blood Sedimentation
  • C-Reactive Protein / metabolism
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Giant Cell Arteritis* / blood
  • Giant Cell Arteritis* / complications
  • Giant Cell Arteritis* / diagnosis
  • Giant Cell Arteritis* / drug therapy
  • Humans
  • Polymyalgia Rheumatica* / blood
  • Polymyalgia Rheumatica* / complications
  • Polymyalgia Rheumatica* / diagnosis
  • Polymyalgia Rheumatica* / drug therapy
  • Prognosis


  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents
  • Biomarkers
  • C-Reactive Protein