Professional Reference articles are designed for health professionals to use. They are written by UK doctors and based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. You may find the Temporal Arteritis (Giant Cell Arteritis) article more useful, or one of our other health articles.
Treatment of almost all medical conditions has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. NICE has issued rapid update guidelines in relation to many of these. This guidance is changing frequently. Please visit https://www.nice.org.uk/covid-19 to see if there is temporary guidance issued by NICE in relation to the management of this condition, which may vary from the information given below.
Synonyms: giant cell arteritis, cranial arteritis
What is giant cell arteritis?
Giant cell arteritis is a granulomatous medium and large-vessel vasculitis. It is the most common form of systemic vasculitis. Giant cell arteritis mainly affects the external cranial branches of the aorta.
Giant cell arteritis is the most important medical emergency in ophthalmology, because of the complication of visual loss. Blindness in temporal arteritis is preventable with early diagnosis, and immediate and aggressive treatment.
What causes giant cell arteritis (aetiology)
The actual cause of temporal arteritis is unknown.
Polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR) is considered by some to be a variant of iant cell arteritis, where overt vasculitis has either not commenced or is possibly prevented by an unknown inhibiting mechanism. 40-60% of people with temporal arteritis also have PMR, conversely 16-21% with PMR have temporal arteritis, perhaps resulting from sharing of genetic risk factors and pathogenesis. Temporal arteritis should be considered in PMR patients with marked constitutional symptoms and/or elevated acute phase reactants, and where there is an inadequate response to glucocorticoids or relapse.
There is a significant increased risk of peripheral arterial disease in people with iant cell arteritis.
How common is giant cell arteritis? (Epidemiology)
- Giant cell arteritis typically occurs in people over the age of 50. The mean age is approximately 70.
- Giant cell arteritis is 2.5 times more likely to occur in women than in men, with lifetime risk at 1% for women and 0.5% for men.
- It is also more likely to occur in Northern European countries and those of northern Europe ancestry with incidence rate of 20 per 100,000. The incidence of giant cell arteritis is much lower in southern Europe and Mediterranean and quite rare in patients of African and Asian descent.
- The HLA gene most commonly associated with giant cell arteritis in Caucasians is HLA Br1*04. Those with this gene are at higher risk for developing temporal arteritis, higher risk for complications of giant cell arteritis such as visual loss, and higher risk of resistance to glucocorticoids.
The onset may be acute or insidious. Typical symptoms include headaches, scalp tenderness and jaw claudication but constitutional symptoms are also common, including malaise, fatigue, weight loss, anorexia and low-grade fever. Headaches are typically severe, may be unilateral or bilateral, and are usually located in the temporal area. Patients typically describe the pain as sharp, burning and severe. Scalp tenderness usually precedes the headaches by a few weeks. Headaches and scalp tenderness tend to occur prior to the onset of visual loss, which occurs in about 30% of patients and is permanent in about 10-15%.
Giant cell arteritis should be suspected if the person is aged 50 years or older and presents with at least one of:
- New-onset headache: headache occurs in about two thirds of people with giant cell arteritis. It is usually temporal but location may vary.
- Temporal artery abnormality -eg, tenderness, thickening, or nodularity - is present in up to 30% of people with giant cell arteritis. Overlying skin is occasionally red and pulsation may be reduced or absent.
- Visual disturbances such as loss of vision, diplopia, or changes to colour vision. Up to 30% of people with giant cell arteritis develop visual loss that may be transient or permanent. In unilateral visual loss there is a 20-50% chance of the other eye also being affected. Double vision, visual field defects, or changes to colour vision may also occur.
- Fundoscopic findings are not specific, but may include pallor and oedema of the optic disc, and 'cotton-wool' patches and small haemorrhages in the retina (these features are usually seen following loss of vision).
- Scalp tenderness occurs in about 50% of people, in particular over the temporal and occipital arteries. Scalp necrosis may occur but is less common.
- Intermittent jaw claudication occurs in nearly half of people with giant cell arteritis, causing pain in the jaw muscles (typically over the masseter after minutes of chewing). Occasionally, intermittent claudication affects the tongue, or the muscles involved in swallowing.
- Systemic features such as fever (usually low-grade), fatigue, anorexia, weight loss, and depression are often present.
- Features of polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR), such as proximal muscle pain, stiffness, and tenderness) are present in about 40% of people with giant cell arteritis.
- Neurological features occur in about 30% of people and include:
- Mononeuropathy or polyneuropathy of the arms or legs.
- Transient ischaemic attack or stroke in the distribution of the carotid or vertebrobasilar arteries.
- Upper cranial nerve palsies.
- Giant cell arteritis may occasionally present with audio-vestibular symptoms or respiratory symptoms such as cough, sore throat, and hoarseness.
- Features associated with extra-cranial large vessel involvement include bruits (eg, carotid artery), decreased arterial pulsation/blood pressure difference between arms, intermittent arm/limb claudication (due to stenosis), and back or chest pain (due to aortitis or aortic dissection).
As clinical features are not specific for giant cell arteritis, other possible causes of symptoms should be considered. Features suggestive of another cause include neurological deficits, severe systemic features, and localised ear, nose, and throat signs.
- Tension-type headache.
- Trigeminal neuralgia.
- Takayasu's arteritis.
- Polyarteritis nodosa.
Once giant cell arteritis is suspected, patients should be referred urgently for temporal artery biopsy, which needs to be done within two weeks of starting steroids.
- Elevation in the acute phase reactants. A normal ESR does not exclude the diagnosis.
- CRP can sometimes be elevated in the presence of a normal ESR.
- Normocytic normochromic anaemia and thrombocytosis are common.
- Auto-antibody and complement levels are normal. Cryoglobulins and monoclonal immunoglobulins are absent. Muscle enzyme levels - eg, creatine kinase and aldolase - are normal.
- LFTs, especially the alkaline phosphatase, may be elevated.
- Temporal artery biopsy taken on the symptomatic side.
- Colour duplex ultrasonography has been shown to be relatively accurate for diagnosing giant cell arteritis.
When performed at a centre with expertise in its use, temporal artery ultrasound has an estimated sensitivity of 78% and specificity of 79%. Positron emission tomography/computerised tomography (PET/CT) has an estimated sensitivity of 71% and specificity of 91%. The sensitivities of both imaging modalities decrease following glucocorticoid administration.
Giant cell arteritis treatment and management
Urgent referral for specialist evaluation is recommended for all patients with suspected giant cell arteritis but this should not delay promptly starting high-dose steroid treatment.
 If temporal artery biopsy is negative (either due to the presence of skip lesions or suboptimal biopsy), patients should be managed as having giant cel arteritis if there is a typical clinical and laboratory picture and response to glucocorticosteroids, or typical findings on ultrasound, or ischaemic complications typical of giant cell arteritis (such as anterior ischaemic optic neuritis).
- Once the diagnosis is suspected, treat with high-dose corticosteroid immediately:
- 40 mg prednisolone daily unless the patient has ischaemic symptoms (jaw or tongue claudication, or visual symptoms).
- Claudication symptoms: give 60 mg prednisolone daily.
- If the patient has visual symptoms, admit for treatment with intravenous methylprednisolone.
- Once symptoms and abnormal test results resolve, the dose can be reduced in 10 mg steps each two weeks to 20 mg, then in 2.5 mg steps.
- Flare-ups and relapses usually respond to corticosteroid increases to the level at which symptoms previously were controlled. Protracted courses of therapy are often necessary.
- Once the diagnosis is suspected, treat with high-dose corticosteroid immediately:
- Glucocorticoid therapy leads to significant toxicity in over 80% of the patients. Osteoporosis prophylaxis is required for patients on long-term steroid treatment.
- If the risk of glucocorticoid toxicity is high, treatment with either methotrexate or tocilizumab in combination with tapered glucocorticoid treatment may be considered.
- Tocilizumab (a monoclonal antibody against the interleukin-6 receptor) is an effective glucocorticoid-sparing therapy, demonstrating sustained glucocorticoid-free remission in 56% of patients receiving weekly tocilizumab compared with 18% of patients receiving a 52-week prednisone taper. The traditional acute phase reactants are of no value in patients treated with interleukin-6 receptor (IL6-R) blockade.
- Loss of vision. Permanent visual loss, partial or total, occurs in up to 20% of patients and is often the first manifestation of the disease.
- Aneurysms, dissections and stenotic lesions of the aorta and its major branches.
- Central nervous system disease: seizures, cerebral vascular accidents. SSS and brain ischaemia. Intracranial vessels are involved only rarely. Peripheral nerve involvement is also rare.
- Steroid-related complications are common; morbidity from steroid therapy is often worse than the underlying disease. Potential steroid-related complications include osteoporosis, corticosteroid myopathy, bruising, emotional symptoms (eg, insomnia, restlessness, hypomania, depression), hypertension, diabetes, elevated cholesterol and fluid retention.
- Visual damage is often irreversible. Partial or complete loss of vision occurs in about 15-20% of patients. Severe sight impairment in both eyes is rare.
- Most people with giant cell arteritis respond rapidly to treatment with glucocorticoids. However, relapses are common and occur in up to 50% despite appropriate treatment.
- Treatment with glucocorticoids is usually needed for 1-2 years, and, in some cases, continued low-dose prednisolone may be needed for several years.
- Overall survival is similar to that of the general population but the risk of developing large vessel complications such as aortic aneurysm is increased..
Further reading and references
Dejaco C, Brouwer E, Mason JC, et al; Giant cell arteritis and polymyalgia rheumatica: current challenges and opportunities. Nat Rev Rheumatol. 2017 Oct13(10):578-592. doi: 10.1038/nrrheum.2017.142. Epub 2017 Sep 14.
van der Geest KSM, Sandovici M, Brouwer E, et al; Diagnostic Accuracy of Symptoms, Physical Signs, and Laboratory Tests for Giant Cell Arteritis: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2020 Oct 1180(10):1295-1304. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.3050.
Lyons HS, Quick V, Sinclair AJ, et al; A new era for giant cell arteritis. Eye (Lond). 2020 Jun34(6):1013-1026. doi: 10.1038/s41433-019-0608-7. Epub 2019 Oct 3.
Hayreh SS; Giant cell arteritis: Its ophthalmic manifestations. Indian J Ophthalmol. 2021 Feb69(2):227-235. doi: 10.4103/ijo.IJO_1681_20.
Winkler A, True D; Giant Cell Arteritis: 2018 Review. Mo Med. 2018 Sep-Oct115(5):468-470.
Giant cell arteritis; NICE CKS, March 2022 (UK access only)
Mackie SL, Dejaco C, Appenzeller S, et al; British Society for Rheumatology guideline on diagnosis and treatment of giant cell arteritis. Rheumatology (Oxford). 2020 Mar 159(3):e1-e23. doi: 10.1093/rheumatology/kez672.
Weyand CM, Goronzy JJ; Clinical practice. Giant-cell arteritis and polymyalgia rheumatica. N Engl J Med. 2014 Jul 3371(1):50-7. doi: 10.1056/NEJMcp1214825.
Hassan N, Dasgupta B, Barraclough K; Giant cell arteritis. BMJ. 2011 May 23342:d3019. doi: 10.1136/bmj.d3019.
Ball EL, Walsh SR, Tang TY, et al; Role of ultrasonography in the diagnosis of temporal arteritis. Br J Surg. 2010 Dec97(12):1765-71. doi: 10.1002/bjs.7252.
Serling-Boyd N, Stone JH; Recent advances in the diagnosis and management of giant cell arteritis. Curr Opin Rheumatol. 2020 May32(3):201-207. doi: 10.1097/BOR.0000000000000700.
Unwin B, Williams CM, Gilliland W; Polymyalgia rheumatica and giant cell arteritis. Am Fam Physician. 2006 Nov 174(9):1547-54.
Ponte C, Rodrigues AF, O'Neill L, et al; Giant cell arteritis: Current treatment and management. World J Clin Cases. 2015 Jun 163(6):484-94. doi: 10.12998/wjcc.v3.i6.484.
Ness T, Bley TA, Schmidt WA, et al; The diagnosis and treatment of giant cell arteritis. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2013 May110(21):376-85
Guida A, Tufano A, Perna P, et al; The thromboembolic risk in giant cell arteritis: a critical review of the literature. Int J Rheumatol. 20142014:806402. doi: 10.1155/2014/806402. Epub 2014 May 20.