Giant cell arteritis is chronic inflammation of large arteries of the head, neck, and upper body. Typically affected are the temporal arteries, which run through the temples and provide blood to part of the scalp, the jaw muscles, and optic nerves.
Giant cell arteritis is a relatively common form of vasculitis in the United States and Europe. Women are affected more often. Giant cell arteritis typically affects people over age 55, often at about age 70. About 40 to 60% of people with giant cell arteritis also have polymyalgia rheumatica (see Vasculitic Disorders: Polymyalgia Rheumatica). The cause of these disorders is unknown.
Symptoms may begin gradually over several weeks or abruptly. Symptoms vary, depending on which arteries are affected. Typically, the large arteries to the head are affected, causing a severe, sometimes throbbing headache at the temples or back of the head to develop for the first time. Arteries in the temple may be tender to the touch and feel swollen and bumpy. The scalp may feel painful when touched or when the hair is brushed. Double or blurred vision, large blind spots, sudden blindness in one eye that resolves within a few minutes, or other eye problems may develop. The greatest danger is permanent blindness, which can occur suddenly if the blood supply to the optic nerve is blocked. Complete blindness in both eyes is uncommon if people are treated as soon as the diagnosis is suspected but can occur without treatment.
Typically, the jaw and its muscles hurt and become tired soon after beginning chewing. The tongue may also hurt when eating or speaking. People may also have fever and feel tired and generally unwell. They may lose weight unintentionally and sweat more than usual.
Occasionally, blood flow to the brain is blocked, and a stroke occurs. Sometimes inflammation damages the aorta, causing its lining to tear (dissection) or a bulge (aneurysm) to form in its wall.
If polymyalgia rheumatica is also present, severe pain and stiffness may occur in the neck, shoulders, and hip and are worse at night and in the morning.
Doctors suspect the diagnosis based on symptoms and results of a physical examination. Doctors feel the temples to see whether the temporal arteries feel hard, bumpy, or tender. Blood tests are done. Results can support the diagnosis. For example, anemia, a very high erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), and a high level of C-reactive protein indicate inflammation. A biopsy of the temporal artery (in the temple) is done to confirm the diagnosis.
If giant cell arteritis is suspected in arteries other than the temporal artery, magnetic resonance angiography may be done to confirm the diagnosis.
Prognosis and Treatment
With treatment, most people recover fully, but the disorder may recur.
Treatment is started as soon as giant cell arteritis is suspected because without treatment, blindness can develop. Treatment is usually started even before a biopsy is done. Treatment does not affect the biopsy results as long as the biopsy is done within 2 weeks after starting treatment. Prednisone, a corticosteroid, is effective. Initially, the dose is high to stop the inflammation in the blood vessels and prevent vision loss. After several weeks, doctors gradually reduce the dose if people are improving. Most people need to take prednisone for at least 2 years to control symptoms and prevent blindness.
Doctors recommend people take a low dose of aspirin daily to help prevent strokes.
Last full review/revision April 2013 by Carmen E. Gota, MD