Giant Cell Arteritis

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Giant Cell Arteritis (GCA) is an inflammation of the lining of your arteries — the blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood from your heart to the rest of your body.

Although GCA can affect the arteries in your neck, upper body and arms, it occurs most often in the arteries in your head, especially those in your temples. For this reason, giant cell arteritis is sometimes called temporal arteritis or cranial arteritis. GCA is also known as granulomatous arteritis — a reference to a particular type of inflammation.

GCA frequently causes headaches, jaw pain, and blurred or double vision, but the most serious potential complications are blindness and, less often, stroke. These problems can occur when swelling in your arteries impairs blood flow to your eyes or brain.

Adults older than age 50 are at greatest risk of giant cell arteritis. The exact cause isn't known, but researchers believe that genetic, viral and environmental factors may play roles in the inflammation.

Although there's no cure for GCA, immediate treatment with corticosteroid medications usually relieves symptoms and prevents loss of vision.

The most common symptoms of giant cell arteritis are head pain and tenderness — often severe — that usually occurs in both temples. Some people, however, have pain in only one temple or the front of the head.

Signs and symptoms of GCA can vary. For some people, the onset of the condition feels like the flu — with muscle aches, fever and fatigue, as well as headache. Other common signs and symptoms include:

  • Decreased visual acuity or double vision.
  • Scalp tenderness. It may hurt to comb your hair or even to lay your head on a pillow, especially where the arteries are inflamed.
  • Jaw pain when you chew.
  • Pain and stiffness in your neck, arms or hips — usually worse in the morning before you get out of bed. These are often common symptoms of a related disorder, polymyalgia rheumatica. More than one in four people with GCA also have polymyalgia rheumatica.
  • Sudden, permanent loss of vision in one eye.
  • Fever.
  • Unintended weight loss.

  • If you develop any of these problems, see your doctor without delay. Starting treatment as soon as possible can usually help prevent blindness.

    Your arteries are pliable tubes with thick, elastic walls. Oxygenated blood leaves your heart through your body's main artery, the aorta. The aorta then subdivides into smaller arteries that deliver blood to all parts of your body, including your brain and internal organs.

    In giant cell arteritis, some of these arteries become inflamed, causing them to swell. Just what causes these arteries to become inflamed isn't known.

    Although almost any large or medium-sized artery can be affected, swelling most often occurs in the temporal arteries, which are located just in front of your ears and continue up into your scalp. In some cases, the swelling affects just part of an artery, with sections of normal vessel in between.

    . . . A potential for blood clots
    Wherever it occurs, the swelling narrows the blood vessels, reducing the amount of blood — and therefore oxygen and vital nutrients — that reaches your body's tissues. In some cases, a blood clot may form in an affected artery, obstructing blood flow completely. Diminished blood flow to your eyes can cause blindness, and an interrupted blood supply to your brain can lead to a stroke.

    Sometimes instead of becoming narrower, a blood vessel — especially the aorta or one of its large branches — may weaken and form a bulge, a potentially life-threatening condition.

    Even without these serious complications, inflamed blood vessels in your head frequently cause pain and tenderness, especially in your temples.

    Treatment for GCA consists of high doses of a corticosteroid drug such as prednisone. Because immediate treatment is necessary to prevent vision loss, your doctor is likely to start medication even before confirming the diagnosis with a biopsy.

    You should start feeling better within just a few days, but you may need to continue taking medication for one to two years or longer. After the first month, your doctor may gradually begin to lower the dosage until you reach the lowest dose of corticosteroids needed to control inflammation as measured by sed rate and CRP tests. Some of your symptoms may return during this tapering period.

    . . . What are corticosteroids?
    Corticosteroids are powerful anti-inflammatory drugs whose effects mimic those of hormones produced by your adrenal glands. The drugs can effectively relieve pain, but prolonged use — especially at high doses — can lead to a number of serious side effects.

    Older adults, who are most likely to be treated for GCA, are particularly at risk because they're more prone to certain conditions that also may be caused by corticosteroids. These include:

  • Osteoporosis
  • High blood pressure
  • Muscle weakness
  • Cataracts

  • Other possible side effects of cortisone therapy include:
  • Weight gain
  • Increased blood sugar levels, sometimes leading to diabetes
  • Thinning skin and increased bruising
  • Decreased function of your immune system

  • . . . New treatments
    Researchers are trying to find therapies that work as well as corticosteroids but cause fewer side effects.

    One drug under investigation is methotrexate, which doctors often use to treat certain cancers and some inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. The hope is that by using both methotrexate and prednisone to treat people with GCA, it would be possible to use less prednisone. Preliminary research results are inconclusive, though.

    A small study suggested that azathioprine (Imuran) may be helpful in the treatment of giant cell arteritis when used along with smaller doses of prednisone. Additionally, some case reports suggest that tumor necrosis factor blockers, such as etanercept (Enbrel) and infliximab (Remicade), may be helpful. However, larger studies need to be done to confirm the effects of all of these medications.


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