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Subclinical giant cell arteritis increases the risk of relapse in polymyalgia rheumatica.

OBJECTIVE: The aim of the present study was to determine the clinical significance of subclinical giant cell arteritis (GCA) in polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR) and ascertain its optimal treatment approach.

METHODS: Patients with PMR who fulfilled the 2012 European Alliance of Associations for Rheumatology/American College of Rheumatology Provisional Classification Criteria for PMR, did not have GCA symptoms and were routinely followed up for 2 years and were stratified into two groups, according to their ultrasound results: isolated PMR and PMR with subclinical GCA. The outcomes (relapses, glucocorticoid use and disease-modifying antirheumatic drug treatments) between groups were compared.

RESULTS: We included 150 patients with PMR (50 with subclinical GCA) with a median (IQR) follow-up of 22 (20-24) months. Overall, 47 patients (31.3 %) had a relapse, 31 (62%) in the subclinical GCA group and 16 (16%) in the isolated PMR group (p<0.001). Among patients with subclinical GCA, no differences were found in the mean (SD) prednisone starting dosage between relapsed and non-relapsed patients (32.4±15.6 vs 35.5±12.1 mg, respectively, p=0.722). Patients with subclinical GCA who relapsed had a faster prednisone dose tapering in the first 3 months compared with the non-relapsed patients, with a mean dose at the third month of 10.0±5.2 versus 15.2±7.9 mg daily (p<0.001). No differences were found between relapsing and non-relapsed patients with subclinical GCA regarding age, sex, C reactive protein and erythrocyte sedimentation rate.

CONCLUSIONS: Patients with PMR and subclinical GCA had a significantly higher number of relapses during a 2-year follow-up than patients with isolated PMR. Lower starting doses and rapid glucocorticoid tapering in the first 3 months emerged as risk factors for relapse.

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