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Giant Cell Arteritis

Giant cell arteritis is a type of inflammation in the blood vessels. It can cause symptoms such as headaches, neck or facial pain, and blindness.

At the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute, our surgeons in the Division of Vascular Surgery are experts in treating giant cell arteritis. We take a team approach to diagnose your condition and design a treatment plan that’s right for you.

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What Is Giant Cell Arteritis?

Giant cell arteritis is a rare type of vasculitis, or inflammation in the blood vessels.

It's most common in the large arteries of the body, including the temporal arteries of the scalp and head, but can affect other arteries.

The condition gets its name from the appearance of “giant” cells in biopsies of temporal arteries.

Giant cell arteritis causes and risk factors

While the cause of giant cell arteritis is unknown, doctors believe the following play a role in causing it:

  • Inflammation
  • Possible infection
  • Age
  • Gender

Some risk factors of giant cell arteritis can include:

  • Age. People over 50 are more likely to have this condition.
  • Gender. Women are more likely than men to get giant cell arteritis.
  • Polymyalgia rheumatica. This medical condition causes pain and stiffness in the neck, shoulders, and hips. It may mimic giant cell arteritis but is distinctly different.

Giant Cell Arteritis Symptoms and Diagnosis

Symptoms of giant cell arteritis

Giant cell arteritis symptoms can include:

  • Headache, especially around the temples
  • Pain in the shoulders and hips (polymyalgia rheumatica)
  • Jaw pain after chewing
  • Fever
  • Blurred vision or vision loss

In some cases, symptoms may also include:

  • Scalp tenderness
  • Jaw or facial pain
  • Cough
  • Pain in the throat or tongue
  • Weight loss
  • Depression
  • Pain in the arms during exercise

If left untreated, giant cell arteritis can lead to serious and even life-threatening complications like permanent blindness and stroke.

Diagnosing giant cell arteritis

Giant cell arteritis can be a challenge to diagnose. Its symptoms can be similar to those of other health problems.

To diagnose giant cell arteritis, your UPMC vascular surgeon will:

  • Discuss your medical history.
  • Ask about your symptoms.
  • Give you a physical exam.

He or she may also use the following tests to confirm a giant cell arteritis diagnosis:

  • An imaging test, like a Duplex ultrasound, can show if your blood vessels are narrow.
  • A blood test that measures your erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), also known as your SED rate. During a SED test, your blood is drawn and placed in a small tube to measure how fast your red blood cells fall to the bottom. If your red blood cells fall quickly, this may indicate inflammation in your blood vessels.
  • A biopsy of your temporal artery is the definite test to check for inflammation.

Giant Cell Arteritis Treatment

Treatment for giant cell arteritis usually includes steroid medication to reduce inflammation.

Often, your UPMC vascular surgeon will start you out with a high dose of steroids and gradually decrease to lower doses.

Giant cell arteritis prognosis

Most people improve quickly once they begin treatment.

You will need to remain on steroids for at least 1 to 2 years following a giant cell arteritis diagnosis. In some cases, you may need longer-term treatment.

Also, giant cell arteritis can recur even after treatment.