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Quick Facts

Giant Cell Arteritis

(Temporal Arteritis; Cranial Arteritis)


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Oct 2019| Content last modified Oct 2019
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Arteries are blood vessels that carry blood from your heart to the rest of your body. "-Itis" means inflammation. So arteritis is inflammation of your arteries. Blood vessel inflammation in general is called vasculitis.

What is giant cell arteritis?

Giant cell arteritis is a type of vasculitis that affects some of your larger arteries. It's sometimes called temporal arteritis because it very often affects an artery on your temple (the side of your head).

  • Giant cell arteritis usually involves the large arteries that go from your heart to your neck and head

  • Doctors don’t know what causes giant cell arteritis

  • It usually affects only people over 55

  • You may have severe headaches, pain in your scalp when you brush your hair, and pain in your jaw when you chew food

  • Giant cell arteritis may lead to blindness or stroke if you don’t get treatment right away

  • Doctors do a blood test and a biopsy (take a sample of tissue) from one of your arteries

  • Doctors will have you take high doses of a corticosteroid such as prednisone

What causes giant cell arteritis?

Doctors don’t know what causes giant cell arteritis.

What are the symptoms of giant cell arteritis?

Symptoms of giant cell arteritis may start suddenly or come on slowly over several weeks.

You may have general symptoms such as fever, sweating, and feeling tired and ill. About half of people have stiff, painful muscles in their neck, shoulders, and hips. The pain and stiffness are worse in the morning, similar to what happens in polymyalgia rheumatica.

Specific symptoms depend on which artery is affected and can include:

  • Severe, throbbing headache in your temples or the back of your head

  • Blurry vision, double vision, sudden blindness in one eye

  • Jaw pain when chewing

  • A stroke

Rarely, giant cell arteritis affects your aorta, the main artery coming out of your heart. You may get chest pain caused by an aortic aneurysm or aortic dissection.

How can doctors tell if I have giant cell arteritis?

If your symptoms seem like giant cell arteritis, doctors will do:

  • Blood tests

  • Biopsy of one of your temporal arteries (take a piece of the artery in your temple to look at under a microscope)

How do doctors treat giant cell arteritis?

To treat giant cell arteritis, doctors will have you take:

  • A high dose of a corticosteroid such as prednisone

They'll try to give you the medicine as soon as possible to prevent blindness.

Doctors try to lower the dose of prednisone after about a month. But you may need to keep taking a lower dose for a long time, sometimes up to 2 years. People who take corticosteroids for a long time can develop:

Doctors may prescribe calcium and vitamin D to prevent bone loss. They also give you a low dose of aspirin each day to help prevent a stroke.

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