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Overview of giant cell arteritis (GCA)

Giant cell arteritis (GCA), also called temporal arteritis, is an uncommon but serious condition. It mainly affects people over the age of 50. It's caused by inflammation of some of the arteries that supply your head and neck.

The most common arteries to be affected are the temporal arteries, which are on each side of your forehead. If the arteries become very inflamed, they can block the blood supply and sometimes cause permanent damage to the area the arteries supply.

As the arteries that supply blood to the eyes can be involved, there is a risk of loss of vision or blindness if GCA is not treated quickly.

Important

If your symptoms include a sudden headache, tenderness around your scalp, pain in your jaw when chewing or changes in your eyesight, see your GP as soon as possible. These are signs of giant cell arteritis (GCA).

Symptoms of giant cell arteritis (GCA)

A bad headache which is often worse at night is the most common symptoms of GCA.

Other, less common symptoms include:

You may also feel generally unwell, for example, tired, depressed and feverish. You may be losing weight and not wanting to eat. These symptoms can appear well before a headache or other specific symptom develop.

You may also have symptoms of polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR) which include pain and stiffness especially around your shoulders and hips. This happens in about half of the people who get GCA.

Diagnosing GCA

Your GP will usually arrange a blood test to check for signs of inflammation. If you have GCA, your blood test will usually show signs of inflammation, although other conditions can also cause this. Occasionally, your blood test can be normal when you have GCA.

If you have typical symptoms and especially if you have signs of inflammation, you will need a temporal artery biopsy. This short procedure involves a surgeon removing a small piece of the temporal artery on the side of your face and looking at it under a microscope to check for inflammation. This is normally done under a local anaesthetic in hospital.

Treating GCA

If your doctor thinks you may have GCA, they will start treatment with high-dose steroid tablets (prednisone) while waiting for your test results.

You can expect to feel better in a few days.

GCA needs treating for a long time to prevent it flaring up.

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On the next page: Treating giant cell arteritis (GCA).

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed July 2021.

Page reference: 438467

Review key: HIGCA-18689