Giant Cell Arteritis

What is Giant Cell Arteritis?

Giant Cell Arteritis (GCA), also known as “Temporal Arteritis” or “Cranial Arteritis”, is a form of vasculitis affecting medium and large sized arteries, especially the arteries going from the aorta to the head, arms, and legs.  The most common symptoms in GCA include headaches, pain in the jaw or tongue muscles when eating or talking, scalp tenderness, fevers, fatigue and, most importantly, loss of vision that can be either temporary or permanent.  Polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR) is an inflammatory arthritis involving the hips and shoulders that often occurs in patients with GCA.

Who gets Giant Cell Arteritis?

Although still a relatively rare disease, GCA is one of the most common types of vasculitis.  GCA only affects people older than 50 years of age and especially those older than 65.  Women are somewhat more likely to get the disease than men.

What causes Giant Cell Arteritis?

The cause of GCA is unknown.

How is Giant Cell Arteritis diagnosed?

The diagnosis of GCA depends on both clinical signs and symptoms and a combination of laboratory tests and temporal artery biopsy.  At diagnosis, most patients (90%) with GCA have an elevated erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR or “sed rate”), which is a non-specific blood marker of inflammation in the body.  Biopsy of the temporal artery  is a simple and relatively safe procedure that does not usually require a hospital stay, and is considered to be the most reliable method of diagnosing GCA.  Some patients with negative biopsies may still have the disease.

How is Giant Cell Arteritis treated?

Treatment with prednisone should begin as soon as the diagnosis is thought to be likely.  To prevent blindness, prednisone is often started even before a biopsy is performed, as the risk of blindness drops dramatically after the first week of treatment.  Prednisone is given in high doses for several months and then slowly reduced.  Many experts also prescribe daily low-dose aspirin.  There are no other drugs that have clearly been shown to be beneficial in the treatment of GCA, but methotrexate is considered to be useful by some experts.  The average duration of prednisone treatment is between two and three years, but varies considerably for individual patients.

*Note: This content has been adapted from the VCRC website