Giant cell arteritis (GCA) is an inflammatory condition of the blood vessels affecting the vessels the carry blood from the heart to the head. GCA primarily affects the arteries supplying blood to the eyes, jaw, and temporal area. GCA is also known as temporal arteritis.
What causes giant cell arteritis? The condition is not completely understood. It is believed to be an auto-immune disease with genetic or viral origins. Statistics indicate the average age of a giant cell arteritis patient is seventy, with females accounting for up to eighty percent of the cases. This condition is more prevalent in people from Northern Europe.
The most common symptom of giant cell arteritis is moderate to severe pain in one or both temples. Some patients experience flu-like symptoms including headaches, fever and general malaise. Patients can experience double vision and dramatic vision loss. The vision loss can be permanent as the inflammation of the arteries impairs blood flow to the eye. GCA can cause jaw pain while chewing. The scalp can become so tender that it hurts to comb your hair. Weight loss that is unexplained can occur. One in four patients with GCA also has polymyalgia rheumatica. This condition causes pain and stiffness of the arms, hip, and neck.
Diagnosing giant cell arteritis can be difficult in its early stages since the signs and symptoms of this disease can mimic other conditions such as strokes or TIA’s. A complete eye examination needs to be performed to rule out other causes. Blood work and a temporal artery biopsy can be done to confirm the diagnosis.
Treatment of giant cell arteritis involves administering systemic steroids intravenously and then orally as the condition stabilizes. Gradually over time the dosage of the steroids is tapered. This can take anywhere from six months to two years. Treatment does not provide a cure but only relieves symptoms and decreases the chance of severe vision loss.
Giant cell arteritis requires prompt treatment. Untreated GCA can lead to blindness. Consult the care of your optometrist or ophthalmologist and family physician if you experience any of the above mentioned symptoms.