What is Giant Cell Arthritis?

Giant cell arteritis (GCA), also known as temporal arteritis, belongs to a family of arthritic diseases called vasculitis. Vasculitis means inflammation of blood vessels. GCA causes inflammation of the lining of the arteries, which leads to swelling inside the arteries.

Health experts don’t understand the exact causes of giant cell arteritis. The most common arteries affected by GCA are around the head and neck, especially the area around the temples. This conditon can cut off the blood supply to your tissues and organs.

Dr. John Wade, MD, FRCPC, Rheumatologist, discusses what Giant Cell Arteritis is and what symptoms people can experience.

Quiz: Do You Understand Giant Cell Arteritis?

Test your knowledge by answering the following questions:


Unlike arthritis, giant cell arteritis is a medical emergency.

Unlike arthritis, giant cell arteritis is a medical emergency, because inflammation of the arteries can cut off the blood supplies to tissues and organs in the body.

Pain in the hip girdle is not a symptom of giant cell arteritis.

Often, the first symptoms of giant cell arteritis go unnoticed, until people start experiencing flu-like symptoms, headaches, sore muscles, jaw claudication, weight loss and pain in the neck, shoulders and hip girdle. Following initial symptoms, many people experience pain in one or both temples, to the point where it hurts to lay your head on a pillow.

If left untreated, GCA can lead to stroke.

If left untreated, GCA can cause vision loss, complete blindness or stroke, so it’s important to seek medical care immediately if you think you might have this condition.

A low dose of prednisone is probably what your rheumatologist will recommend.

If your doctor or specialist suspects you have giant cell arteritis and confirms the diagnosis, it will be recommended that you go on high dose prednisone. Prednisone is an extremely effective treatment for this condition. Typically, your specialist will recommend a dose of one milligram per kilogram of prednisone.

Prednisone often has side effects that patients need to manage.

When patients go on high-dose prednisone for giant cell arteritis, one of the biggest management problems is handling the side effects from the prednisone. It’s important that you see your specialist to discuss about lifestyle and other medications that can minimize the side effects of long-term, high-dose prednisone.
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Dr. John Wade, MD, FRCPC, Rheumatologist, discusses how Giant Cell Arteritis is treated.

Who Gets Giant Cell Arteritis?

While giant cell arteritis can occur in people in their 50s or 60s, people aged 70 and older are most commonly affected by it. It’s about twice as common in women than men, and people from Northern Europe have the highest rates of GCA. About half of the patients who have giant cell arteritis also have polymyalgia rheumatica.

Diagnosis of Giant Cell Arteritis

If you have symptoms of giant cell arteritis, you’ll probably be referred to a rheumatologist, who specializes in arthritis and autoimmune disease. In order to diagnose GCA, the rheumatologist will take your complete medical history,  perform a physical examination and order tests, which may include blood tests, scans and biopsies.

Symptoms of Giant Cell Arteritis

Pain or Tenderness in the Head and Temple

Most patients initially experience persistent pain or tenderness around one or both temples. GCA can make the area above the temporal artery (above the ear on the side of the head) very sensitive. As a result, you may find it’s painful to lie on your pillow on that side. Other symptoms patients may experience include pain in the forehead, scalp, tongue and jaw while chewing. In rare cases of GCA, the temporal artery becomes very prominent.

Fatigue & Muscle Soreness

People with GCA may feel like they have the flu, experiencing fatigue, headache, fever and achy muscles.


If giant cell arteritis becomes severe, the blood flow to areas supplied by the arteries can be cut off. This may lead to symptoms such as double vision, vision loss and eventually blindness.

Polymyalgia Rheumatica Symptoms

It is estimated that up to 70% of people with polymyalgia rheumatica also have giant cell arteritis. Symptoms of polymyalgia rheumatica include pain and stiffness in the neck, shoulders and hips, usually worse in the morning.

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Common Tests for Polymyalgia Rheumatica

Biopsy of the Temporal Artery: This is considered the best test for diagnosing giant cell arteritis. During this minor operation, a the surgeon takes a biopsy of the temporal artery to be evaluated for inflammation of the artery wall.

Complete Blood Count (CBC), Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate (ESR) and C-Reactive Protein (CRP) are commonly used to look for inflammation.

Ultrasound and/or Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): Your rheumatologist may recommend imaging tests to look for inflammation in the artery walls.

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Dr. Rajwinder Dhillon

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Treatment for Giant Cell Arteritis

When it comes to treating giant cell arteritis, the sooner the better. This disease must be treated very quickly and aggressively to help prevent serious consequences such as stroke and blindness. If a patient doesn’t get effective treatment quickly, the inflammation can damage arteries that supply important organs and tissues in the body (e.g., eyes, brain).

GCA is most often treated with medications that work to control inflammation. In some patients, the disease goes into remission once inflammation is under control, and medication can be tapered off.

In other people, GCA is a chronic disease that requires small doses of medicine on a long-term basis.

Common medications for giant cell arteritis include:

Disease Modifying Anti-Rheumatic Drugs (DMARDs)

Disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs are typically used to treat patients with inflammatory arthritis. Methotrexate is a common example of a DMARD that has been effective in treating some patients with giant cell arteritis.

Taking methotrexate can also help reduce the dose of prednisone you need to keep inflammation under control, reducing the risk of side effects.


Corticosteroid medications like prednisone can be very effective in controlling GCA symptoms and inflammation and preventing future damage.

For most patients, prednisone is prescribed at a high dose to bring inflammation under control. Once GCA symptoms have improved and markers of inflammation have come back to normal, your Local rheumatologist will taper the dose. That’s because prednisone can have side effects such as osteoporosis when used long-term.


This class of medications that target the immune system. Blocking a molecule called Interleukin-6 has been very effective in treating patients with giant cell arteritis. Actemra (tocilizumab) is a biologic that blocks Interleukin-6 and is approved for the treatment of GCA.

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