What Is Giant Cell Arteritis?

Giant cell arteritis (GCA) is an inflammation (swelling) of the arteries, which are the blood vessels that carry blood away from the heart. When arteries swell, it reduces the blood flow through these vessels. GCA affects the arteries in the neck, upper body and arms. It is also called cranial or temporal arteritis because it affects the head (cranium).

Because these blood vessels also help nourish your eyes, reduced blood flow can cause sudden, painless vision loss. This condition is called anterior ischemic optic neuropathy (AION).

What are symptoms of GCA?

The symptoms of GCA can vary. Many people have severe headaches, head pain and scalp tenderness, particularly around the temples. GCA can affect your eyesight, causing sudden vision loss or double vision. Blindness caused by GCA generally happens first in one eye, but can also happen in the other eye if the condition is not treated. That is why it is extremely important to be checked by an ophthalmologist right away if you have these symptoms.

Other symptoms may include:

  • flu-like symptoms including headache, fatigue, and fever
  • blurred vision
  • double vision
  • scalp tenderness (pain when combing or brushing hair)
  • jaw cramps, especially when chewing
  • stiffness or pain in the neck, hip or arms
  • unexplained weight loss

Who is at risk for GCA?

GCA affects mostly older people. It is rarely found in anyone younger than 50 years old and is more common around age 70. Women are twice as likely as men to have GCA.

People with northern European ancestry, particularly Scandinavian, are more likely to develop GCA. GCA is rare in Asians and African-Americans.

Polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR) is an inflammatory disorder involving pain and stiffness in the shoulder and usually the hip. People with PMR are also at increased risk for GCA. PMR can also occur with severe infections and the use of high doses of antibiotics.