What is Giant Cell Arteritis?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 30 December 2018
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Giant cell arteritis (GCA) is an inflammation of medium and large blood vessels in the body. It most classically involves the blood vessels in the head, and is sometimes referred to as temporal or cranial arteritis for this reason. This condition can have a number of very serious complications, including stroke and the onset of blindness, and it is important to receive timely diagnosis and treatment for giant cell arteritis. Most commonly, patients with this condition are over 72 years of age, making it a concern primarily for doctors who deal with older patients.

In patients with giant cell arteritis, the lining of the blood vessels becomes inflamed. This can lead to the development of headache, fever, blurred vision, distorted vision, and generalized pain. The erythrocyte sedimentation rate or “sed rate” in the blood is usually elevated. This shows up on routine bloodwork, and can provide a clue into the cause for the patient's symptoms, but additional testing is needed to diagnose giant cell arteritis because many conditions cause an elevated sed rate.


Diagnostic tests can include medical imaging studies to visualize the blood vessels of interest, including angiography studies to trace the movement of blood through the vessels and ultrasound to see the vessels. A doctor may also recommend taking a biopsy of the blood vessel so that the lining of the vessel can be examined under a microscope. The hallmark of giant cell arteritis is the appearance of large cells in the biopsy sample.

The treatment for this condition is corticosteroids, introduced to bring down the inflammation and stabilize the patient. Follow up testing will be used to determine whether or not the steroids are effective, and to test for signs of damage such as damage to the eyes. If giant cell arteritis is left untreated, the patient can become blind, and he or she is at a highly elevated risk of stroke. Patients can also develop neurological problems as a result of the impairment to their blood flow.

This condition is relatively rare. It can occur in association with other medical problems, such as polymyalgia rheumatica. The precise cause of giant cell arteritis is not fully understood, which can make it difficult to prevent. As a general rule, patients can always benefit from taking good care of their bodies by eating a balanced diet and exercising on a regular basis. Patients with existing medical problems should also make sure that they receive regular medical treatment to check for the signs of emerging complications and comorbidities.



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