Giant Cell Arteritis (GCA)

What is Giant Cell Arteritis?

Giant cells are inflamed cells of arteries affected with giant cell arteritis (GCA) or temporal arteritis. Inflamed cells look much larger than normal which is why they are called “giant” cells. Patients afflicted with GCA are usually 50 or more years old. Just why older people and not all people come down with GCA is unknown.

Inflammation suggests that the body’s own immune system is attacking the cells of arteries. Johns Hopkins Vaculitis Center notes that women are more prone to GCA than men and that people with Scandinavian ancestors are also most prone. People who get GCA often quickly get or already have another medical condition called polymyalgia rheumatica.

If left untreated, GCA can cause permanent blindness.

What are the Symptoms of Giant Cell Arteritis?

The usual symptoms of GCA are a constant headache, jaw pain that occurs after eating, fever, eye problems such as blurred vision, shoulder pain and hip pain. More unusual symptoms include scalp pain that is so bad that brushing or combing hair is impossible, sore throat, tongue pain, flu-like body aches, feeling very tired all of the time, inexplicable weight loss, sudden onset of depression and arm pain that goes away when the arms are at rest.

The most serious but uncommon symptom is a stroke.

Giant Cell Arteritis Causes

The exact cause of giant cell arteritis is unknown. A few studies have shown that the immune system may play a role in the inflammatory response; however, the studies haven’t been able to demonstrate a direct relationship between the disorder and the immune system. Without that direct link shown the disease can’t classify as an auto-immune disorder. There have also been signs that genetics can play a role in getting this disease. If someone in your family has it, the odds are increased that you’ll get the disorder. There are theories that giant cell arteritis is related to polymyalgia rheumatica. In about fifty percent of the cases of giant cell arteritis, the patient develops or has polymyalgia rheumatica. Researchers are still trying to figure out if the two disorders are on a spectrum or if they’re two similar but distinct disorders.

How is Giant Cell Arthritis Treated?

In order to get a definite diagnosis, a doctor needs to take a biopsy of the temporal artery in the head. This is an outpatient procedure that often can be done in a doctor’s office. Blood tests may also be needed if the biopsy proves negative and symptoms persist.

Treatment includes

Fortunately, this serious condition is treatable with prednisone, a corticosteroid. 40 to 60 milligrams are taken in pill form every day for one or two years. Some patients feel relief in as little as one day after starting prednisone. Some patients may suffer side effects from prednisone and may need to take medication to handle the side effects.

Another problem connected to this medication, is the fact that it cannot be simply suspended.  In fact, this would cause dangerous withdrawal symptoms. Patients who are treated with prednisone need to taper it off gradually.

Giant Cell Arteritis Prevention

There isn’t any known prevention for giant cell arteritis because there isn’t a known cause yet. It is known that the disorder is caused by inflammation of the blood vessels so keeping overall body inflammation down may help in preventing this disease from showing up. Natural anti-inflammatories and a diet that is aimed towards reducing inflammation may help control the symptoms or keep the disorder at bay until it progresses far enough to need a doctor’s expertise. This disease is treated with a variety of treatments, the primary goal of therapy is to keep serious complications from appearing. Two of the most common procedures are low-dose aspirin and steroids. During a study of people who took low-dose aspirin and a prednisone, only three percent developed complications during the study versus the none-aspirin group where thirteen percent developed complications. This study suggests that taking low-dose aspirin decreases the complications experienced with giant cell arteritis.

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Last Reviewed:
September 21, 2016
Last Updated:
December 27, 2017