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An inflammatory cause for arm pain – Musculoskeletal case of the month


Myositis is the name for a group of conditions where there is muscle inflammatory changes and break down. It is usually autoimmune in nature. The main symptoms are weakness, painful or aching muscles which sometimes can be confused with joint or nerve related pain.

There are different types of myositis, including:

  • Polymyositis, which affects many different muscles, particularly the shoulders, hips and thigh muscles. It’s more common in women and tends to affect people aged 30 to 60. This is the most common cause of myositis. 
  • Dermatomyositis, which affects several muscles and causes a rash. It’s more common in women and can also affect children (juvenile dermatomyositis).
  • Inclusion body myositis (IBM), which causes weakness in the thigh muscles, forearm muscles and the muscles below the knee. It may also cause problems with swallowing (dysphagia). IBM is more common in men and tends to affect people over 50.


Polymyositis affects many different muscles, particularly around the neck, shoulders, back, hips and thighs.

Symptoms of polymyositis include:

  • muscle weakness
  • aching or painful muscles and feeling very tired
  • finding it hard to sit up, or stand after a fall
  • swallowing problems, or finding it hard to hold your head up
  • associations with poor mental health

Patients may find it difficult to get up from a chair, climb stairs, lift objects, and comb your hair. The muscle weakness can become so severe that even picking up a cup of tea can be difficult. The muscle weakness may change from week to week or month to month, although it tends to steadily get worse if treatment is not given early.

Case Presentation

Clinical history;

  • 30 year old lady presents with left arm, shoulder and neck pain over the past 6 months
  • Pain comes in flares every few weeks and described as a dull ache
  • Left arm feels heavy and pain on lifting and carrying, initially carrying weight in gym, progressing to household objects e.g., kettle
  • Mild tingling in the left hand on occasions
  • Night pain present during flares
  • No temperatures, fevers or night sweats
  • No blood in urine (to indicate haemoglobinuria)

Previous treatment and investigation

  • GP organised MRI scan of neck which showed no evidence of cervical nerve root impingement. 
  • Patient had physiotherapy to treat neck symptoms which helped marginally

Past Medical history;

  • BMI 22
  • Non-smoker
  • History of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), previously been on immunosupressants mercaptopurine and asacol (stopped 6 years ago and no recent flares)
  • Hypothyroidism – taking thyroxine 50mcg for underactive thyroid

Exercise history;

  • Enjoys keeping fit with exercise classes and gym training
  • No execessive heavy loading history or history of endurance sports

Social history;

  • Teacher
  • Non drinker or smoker

Clinical examination;

  • Moderate discomfort on shoulder movements particulary, adduction and abduction and wrist movements
  • Full power in all myotomes in left upper limb and normal sensation in all dermatomes
  • Moderate/severe pain on palpation of certain muscle groups including deltoid, forearm
  • Neural tension tests mildly positive in median and radial nerve bias

Point of Care Ultrasound 

Normal appearences of the shoulder, rotator cuff, deltoid, elbow and wrist

Clincial suspicions, differentials and reasoning;

  1. Myositis. The past medical history of inflammatory bowel disease should raise suspicion for inflammatory causes of muscle pain and should be excluded before a musculoskeletal diagnosis in made. Localised tenderness over muscle groups is high suggestive of muscle pathology (inflammation or otherwise). 
  2. Rhabdomyolosis. Rhabdomyolysis can be defined as a clinical syndrome associated with the breakdown of skeletal muscle fibres and myocyte cell membranes, leading to release of muscle contents into the circulation, resulting in multiple complications, including electrolyte disturbance. This can occur in patients with extreme loading e.g. ultramarathon, or exercising in a dehydrated state. Unlikely in this patient due to the low training volume. Note, severe myositis can lead to rhabdomyolosis. 
  3. Shoulder related pain. Both glenohumeral and subacromial pain can present as referred symptoms down the arm but usually have restriction/pain in shoulder range rather than global muscle aching and fatigue, although this can be difficult to differentiate. Tenderness to the muscles in arm would also suggest there is localised pathology.
  4. Nerve related pain. Although previous MRI of the cervical spine came back as normal, neural tension and nerve related pain can arise in the neck, brachial plexus or in upper/lower arm. Normal neurological examination of myotomes/dermatomes would suggest otherwise in this case. Pain is also out of proportion to fit with neural tension with no median or radial nerve disturbance.

Imaging and Investigation

MRI scan left shoulder, left upper arm and foream 

T2 weighted images show florid muscle oedema and myositis in teres major (left image), posterior delotid (middle image), brachoradialis and forearm compartments (right image)

Blood tests

  • Elevated ESR of 56
  • Elevated creatine kinase (CK) of 560 (CK is a marked of muscle breakdown)
  • Positive Myositis autoantibodies
  • Normal kidney, liver and blood count


Polymyositis, affecting muscle groups in the left upper liimb. Likely association with patient’s previous inflammatory bowel disease and hypothyroidism.


Exercise therapy

  • Patient given an appropriate loading programme with aerobic, anaerobic and strength stimuli
  • When treating inflammatory myositis, exercise is safe and very beneficial in the reduction of inflammation
  • This is different to overuse muscle breakdown conditions (e.g. rhabdomyolsis) where peroids of rest may be advised to aid muscle recovery

Medical treatment

  • Patient urgently referred to NHS rheumatology service and started on immunosuppressants
  • Patients symptoms settled rapidly once started on the correct treatment

Key Summary and learning points

  • Be mindful of pain localised to muscles, particularly in the proximal upper and lower limb girdles
  • A good inflammatory history is key if suspecting myositis, although there is not always a clear association between inflammatory bowel disease and inflammatory joint or muscle disease
  • Blood tests and autoantibodies have an important role when diagnosing myositis, particularly ESR and and Creatine Kinase.
  • Aerobic or static exercise is safe and will not cause damage to the muscles or joints in people with myositis
  • Regular physical activity can also reduce the risk of chronic diseases that are possible complications of myositis, including type II diabetes, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease and hypertension
  • Exercise is particularly important for patients with inclusion body myositis (IBM), as this type of myositis does not respond to medication
  • Ultrasound often cannot detect muscle oedema, whereas MRI is much more sensitive
  • Useful link for patients and clinicians 
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    Administration, LBSM

    Orla Mulligan is the administration and social media manager for LBSM. She has a strong background in sport having herself played netball at an elite standard for the U21s Northern Ireland team in the European Championships as well as the U21s competition for Saracen Mavericks.

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    Having graduated from University of Brighton with a MSc (hons) in Podiatry, Maddie focused her career in Podiatric Sports Injuries and Biomechanics. Previously she completed a BSc (hons) in Sport Science at Loughborough University.

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    Mr Prakash Saha is a Consultant Vascular Surgeon at LBSM. He takes pride in providing the best possible results for his patients by using the most appropriate non-surgical and surgical methods based on clinical evidence, patient results and satisfaction.

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    Mr Saha studied medicine at the United Medical & Dental Schools at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospitals before completing his higher surgical training in London and the South East. During this time, he was awarded the prestigious NIHR Clinical Lectureship in Vascular Surgery at St. Thomas’ Hospital, giving him comprehensive training in open and endovascular techniques for treating arterial and venous disease. Prakash completed his aortic surgery training at the St. George’s Vascular Institute before carrying out a specialist fellowship at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney.

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