Medical Grand Rounds

Myopathy for the general internist: Statins and much more

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Patients with muscle diseases are often seen initially by general practitioners. This article reviews how to evaluate and manage such patients, including those taking a statin, how to interpret creatine kinase (CK) test results, and how to recognize common as well as potentially dangerous myopathies.


  • Inclusion body myositis affects older men more than women and is characterized by slowly progressive, asymmetric, distal and proximal weakness and atrophy.
  • Statin-associated muscle complaints are common, whereas necrotizing myopathy, characterized by a very high CK plus weakness, is rare but must be recognized.
  • Elevated CK does not necessarily indicate myositis, especially in African Americans or after heavy exercise.
  • Dermatomyositis is characterized by muscle weakness and raised red or purple Gottron papules over the knuckles, elbows, or knees.
  • Autoimmune interstitial lung disease may be caused by a variety of antibodies, the most common being anti-Jo-1 (directed against histidyl tRNA synthetase).
  • The rarer non-Jo-1 antisynthetase autoantibodies may be associated with rapidly progressive interstitial lung disease, which is a challenge to recognize because associated rheumatologic symptoms may be minimal.



Myopathies can present with a wide variety of symptoms, so patients with muscle weakness are often seen initially by a general practitioner. Nonrheumatologists should be able to evaluate a patient presenting with muscle weakness or myalgia and be aware of red flags indicating potentially dangerous syndromes that require a prompt, thorough investigation.

This article reviews selected causes of muscle weakness, such as statin-induced and autoimmune disorders, and systemic features of inflammatory myopathies beyond myositis, such as dermatologic and pulmonary manifestations.


The evaluation of a patient presenting with muscle weakness should include several assessments:

Temporal progression. Was the onset of symptoms rapid or insidious? Patterns of onset may give clues to etiology, including the possibility of an associated autoimmune condition.

Location of muscle weakness. Are symptoms global or localized? And if localized, are they proximal or distal? Proximal weakness can be manifested by difficulty rising from a chair (hip muscles) or combing one’s hair (shoulder muscles), whereas distal weakness can involve difficulty standing on toes (gastrocnemius and soleus muscles) or performing fine motor activities (intrinsic hand muscles).

Symmetry. A focal or asymmetric pattern often has a neurologic etiology, but this could also be consistent with inclusion body myositis.

Other symptoms. Arthritis, rash, and swallowing problems point to a possible underlying rheumatologic disease. Weight gain or loss may indicate a thyroid disorder.

Family history. Some patients report that others in their family have this pattern of weakness, indicating a likely genetic myopathy. If the patient reports a relative with multiple sclerosis, lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, or another autoimmune disease, then an immune-mediated myopathy should be considered.

Medications should be reviewed, particularly statins.


A 65-year-old man presented with the insidious onset of muscle weakness and episodes of falling. On review of his medical record, his serum creatine kinase (CK) levels were elevated at various periods at 2 to 4 times the upper limit of normal. Electromyography (EMG) previously showed a myopathic pattern, and a muscle biopsy was abnormal, consistent with endomysial inflammation (term is consistent with “polymyositis”). He was treated for polymyositis for several years with prednisone alone, with steroids plus methotrexate, and with combined immunosuppression including methotrexate and azathioprine, but with no improvement. Eventually, another muscle biopsy revealed inclusion bodies with rimmed vacuoles, consistent with inclusion body myositis.

Inclusion body myositis

Inclusion body myositis is the most common myopathy in middle-aged to elderly people, especially men. These patients are often told “You are just getting old,” but they have a defined condition. It should also be considered in patients failing to respond to treatment or with those with “refractory” polymyositis.

The onset of muscle weakness is insidious and painless, and the weakness progresses slowly. The pattern is distal and asymmetric (eg, foot drop), and muscle atrophy typically affects the forearm flexors, quadriceps, and intrinsic muscles of the hands.1

Magnetic resonance imaging may show marked muscle atrophy. Unfortunately, no treatment has shown efficacy, and most neuromuscular and rheumatology experts do not treat inclusion body myositis with immunosuppressive drugs.


A black 52-year-old man was referred because of myalgia and a CK level of 862 U/L (reference range < 200). His physician wanted to start him on a statin but was hesitant to do so without first consulting a rheumatologist.

The patient had a long history of mild arthralgias and myalgias without muscle weakness. He had dyslipidemia and hypertension. He reported no family history of myopathy and no illicit drug use. He was formerly an athlete. Medications included a thiazide diuretic and a beta-blocker. On examination, his muscles were strong (rated 5 on a scale of 5) in the upper and lower extremities, without atrophy.

His records showed that his CK levels had risen and fallen repeatedly over the past few years, ranging from 600 to 1,100 U/L. On further questioning, he reported that when he had joined the army 30 years previously, a physician had recommended he undergo a liver biopsy in view of elevated liver function tests, but that he had refused because he felt fine.

Currently, his gamma-glutamyl transpeptidase levels were normal.

Idiopathic ‘hyperCKemia’

So-called idiopathic hyperCKemia is not a form of myositis but merely a laboratory result outside the “normal” range. Reference ranges are based predominantly on measurements in white people and on an assumption that the distribution is Gaussian (bell-shaped). A normal CK level is usually defined as less than 200 U/L. Using this standard, up to 20% of men and 5% of women have hyperCKemia.2

However, CK levels vary by sex and ethnicity, with mean levels highest in black men, followed by black women, white men, and white women. The mean level in black men is higher than the standard cutoff point for normal, and especially in this population, there is wide fluctuation around the mean, leading to hyperCKemia quite frequently in black men. Exercise and manual labor also drive up CK levels.3–5

Idiopathic hyperCKemia is benign. D’Adda et al6 followed 55 patients for a mean of 7.5 years. CK levels normalized in 12 patients or at least decreased in 24. Most remained symptom-free or had minimal symptoms.

Idiopathic hyperCKemia: Bottom line

Before prescribing a statin, determine the baseline CK level. If slightly elevated (ie, up to 3 to 5 times the upper limit of normal, or even higher) in the setting of normal muscle strength, there is no need for electromyography or muscle biopsy, and the patient can certainly receive a statin. Most of these patients do not need to see a rheumatologist but can simply have their CK and muscle strength monitored.


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