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Giant cell arteritis

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Sep 21, 2022.

Overview

Giant cell arteritis is an inflammation of the lining of your arteries. Most often, it affects the arteries in your head, especially those in your temples. For this reason, giant cell arteritis is sometimes called temporal arteritis.

Giant cell arteritis frequently causes headaches, scalp tenderness, jaw pain and vision problems. Untreated, it can lead to blindness.

Prompt treatment with corticosteroid medications usually relieves symptoms of giant cell arteritis and might prevent loss of vision. You'll likely begin to feel better within days of starting treatment. But even with treatment, relapses are common.

You'll need to visit your doctor regularly for checkups and treatment of any side effects from taking corticosteroids.

Symptoms

The most common symptoms of giant cell arteritis are head pain and tenderness — often severe — that usually affects both temples. Head pain can progressively worsen, come and go, or subside temporarily.

Generally, signs and symptoms of giant cell arteritis include:

Pain and stiffness in the neck, shoulders or hips are common symptoms of a related disorder, polymyalgia rheumatica. About 50 percent of people with giant cell arteritis also have polymyalgia rheumatica.

When to see a doctor

If you develop a new, persistent headache or any of the signs and symptoms listed above, see your doctor without delay. If you're diagnosed with giant cell arteritis, starting treatment as soon as possible can usually help prevent vision loss.

Giant cell arteritis

Giant cell arteritis causes inflammation of certain arteries, especially those near the temples.

Causes

With giant cell arteritis, the lining of arteries becomes inflamed, causing them to swell. This swelling narrows your blood vessels, reducing the amount of blood — and, therefore, oxygen and vital nutrients — that reaches your body's tissues.

Almost any large or medium-sized artery can be affected, but swelling most often occurs in the arteries in the temples. These are just in front of your ears and continue up into your scalp.

What causes these arteries to become inflamed isn't known, but it's thought to involve abnormal attacks on artery walls by the immune system. Certain genes and environmental factors might increase your susceptibility to the condition.

Risk factors

Several factors can increase your risk of developing giant cell arteritis, including:

Complications

Giant cell arteritis can cause serious complications, including:

Diagnosis

Giant cell arteritis can be difficult to diagnose because its early symptoms resemble those of other common conditions. For this reason, your doctor will try to rule out other possible causes of your problem.

In addition to asking about your symptoms and medical history, your doctor is likely to perform a thorough physical exam, paying particular attention to your temporal arteries. Often, one or both of these arteries are tender, with a reduced pulse and a hard, cordlike feel and appearance.

Your doctor might also recommend certain tests.

Blood tests

The following tests might be used to help diagnose your condition and to follow your progress during treatment.

Imaging tests

These might be used to diagnose giant cell arteritis and to monitor your response to treatment. Tests might include:

Biopsy

The best way to confirm a diagnosis of giant cell arteritis is by taking a small sample (biopsy) of the temporal artery. This artery is situated close to the skin just in front of your ears and continues up to your scalp. The procedure is performed on an outpatient basis using local anesthesia, usually with little discomfort or scarring. The sample is examined under a microscope in a laboratory.

If you have giant cell arteritis, the artery will often show inflammation that includes abnormally large cells, called giant cells, which give the disease its name. It's possible to have giant cell arteritis and have a negative biopsy result.

If the results aren't clear, your doctor might advise another temporal artery biopsy on the other side of your head.

Treatment

The main treatment for giant cell arteritis 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'll likely begin to feel better within a few days of beginning treatment. If you have visual loss before starting treatment with corticosteroids, it's unlikely that your vision will improve. However, your unaffected eye might be able to compensate for some of the visual changes.

You may need to continue taking medication for one to two years or longer. After the first month, your doctor might gradually begin to lower the dosage until you reach the lowest dose of corticosteroids needed to control inflammation.

Some symptoms, particularly headaches, may return during this tapering period. This is the point at which many people also develop symptoms of polymyalgia rheumatica. Such flares can usually be treated with slight increases in the corticosteroid dose. Your doctor might also suggest an immune-suppressing drug called methotrexate (Trexall).

Corticosteroids can lead to serious side effects, such as osteoporosis, high blood pressure and muscle weakness. To counter potential side effects, your doctor is likely to monitor your bone density and might prescribe calcium and vitamin D supplements or other medications to help prevent bone loss.

The Food and Drug Administration recently approved tocilizumab (Actemra) to treat giant cell arteritis. It's given as an injection under your skin. Side effects include making you more prone to infections. More research is needed.

Lifestyle and home remedies

When giant cell arteritis is diagnosed and treated early, the prognosis is usually excellent. Your symptoms will likely improve quickly after beginning corticosteroid treatment, and your vision isn't likely to be affected.

The following suggestions might help you manage your condition and cope with side effects of your medication:

Coping and support

Learning everything you can about giant cell arteritis and its treatment can help you feel more in control of your condition. Your health care team can answer your questions, and online support groups might also be of help. Know the possible side effects of the medications you take, and report any changes in your health to your doctor.

Preparing for an appointment

You might start by seeing your primary care doctor. He or she may refer you to an eye specialist (ophthalmologist) if you're having visual symptoms, a brain and nervous system specialist (neurologist) if you're having headaches, or a specialist in diseases of the joints, bones and muscles (rheumatologist).

Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.

What you can do

When you make the appointment, ask if there's anything you need to do in advance. For some tests involved in diagnosing giant cell arteritis, you might need to follow special instructions before the appointment.

Make a list of:

Take a friend or family member with you to help you remember the information you're given.

For giant cell arteritis, questions to ask your doctor include:

Don't hesitate to ask other questions.

What to expect from your doctor

Examples of questions your doctor may ask, include:

What you can do in the meantime

Ask your doctor if taking a pain reliever such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) or naproxen sodium (Aleve) might help ease head pain or tenderness.

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