Giant cell arteritis: An updated review of an old disease

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Release date: July 1, 2019
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Giant cell arteritis is a common systemic vasculitis that affects the elderly and has a variable clinical presentation. Physicians should be aware of its different clinical phenotypes so that they can recognize it early and promptly initiate glucocorticoids, the mainstay of therapy. Clinicians should also be familiar with the toxicity of glucocorticoids and how to manage adverse effects. Tocilizumab, an interleukin 6 receptor inhibitor, is emerging as a glucocorticoid-sparing treatment, though its long-term safety and efficacy are still under study.


  • Giant cell arteritis can present with cranial symptoms, extracranial large-vessel involvement, or polymyalgia rheumatica.
  • Temporal artery biopsy is the standard for diagnosis.
  • Adverse effects of glucocorticoid treatment, particularly bone loss, need to be managed.
  • In patients treated with glucocorticoids alone, the relapse rate is high when the drugs are tapered; thus, prolonged treatment is required.



Giant cell arteritis (GCA) is a systemic vasculitis involving medium-sized and large arteries, most commonly the temporal, ophthalmic, occipital, vertebral, posterior ciliary, and proximal vertebral arteries. Moreover, involvement of the ophthalmic artery and its branches results in loss of vision. GCA can also involve the aorta and its proximal branches, especially in the upper extremities.

GCA is the most common systemic vasculitis in adults. It occurs almost exclusively in patients over age 50 and affects women more than men. It is most frequent in populations of northern European ancestry, especially Scandinavian. In a retrospective cohort study in Norway, the average annual cumulative incidence rate of GCA was 16.7 per 100,000 people over age 50.1 Risk factors include older age, history of smoking, current smoking, early menopause, and, possibly, stress-related disorders.2


The pathogenesis of GCA is not completely understood, but there is evidence of immune activation in the arterial wall leading to activation of macrophages and formation of multinucleated giant cells (which may not always be present in biopsies).

The most relevant cytokines in the ongoing pathogenesis are still being defined, but the presence of interferon gamma and interleukin 6 (IL-6) seem to be critical for the expression of the disease. The primary immunogenic triggers for the elaboration of these cytokines and the arteritis remain elusive.


The initial symptoms of GCA may be vague, such as malaise, fever, and night sweats, and are likely due to systemic inflammation. Features of vascular involvement include headache, scalp tenderness, and jaw claudication (cramping pain in the jaw while chewing).

A less common but serious feature associated with GCA is partial or complete vision loss affecting 1 or both eyes.3 Some patients suddenly go completely blind without any visual prodrome.

Overlapping GCA phenotypes exist, with a spectrum of presentations that include classic cranial arteritis, extracranial GCA (also called large-vessel GCA), and polymyalgia rheumatica.2

Cranial GCA, the best-characterized clinical presentation, causes symptoms such as headache or signs such as tenderness of the temporal artery. On examination, the temporal arteries may be tender or nodular, and the pulses may be felt above the zygomatic arch, above and in front of the tragus of the ear. About two-thirds of patients with cranial GCA present with new-onset headache, most often in the temporal area, but possibly anywhere throughout the head.

Visual disturbance, jaw claudication, and tongue pain are less common but, if present, increase the likelihood of this diagnosis.2

Large-vessel involvement in GCA is common and refers to involvement of the aorta and its proximal branches. Imaging methods used in diagnosing large-vessel GCA include color Doppler ultrasonography, computed tomography with angiography, magnetic resonance imaging with angiography, and positron emission tomography. In some centers, such imaging is performed in all patients diagnosed with GCA to survey for large-vessel involvement.

Depending on the imaging study, large-vessel involvement has been found in 30% to 80% of cases of GCA.4,5 It is often associated with nonspecific symptoms such as fever, weight loss, chills, and malaise, but it can also cause more specific symptoms such as unilateral extremity claudication. In contrast to patients with cranial GCA, patients with large-vessel GCA were younger at onset, less likely to have headaches, and more likely to have arm claudication at presentation.6 Aortitis of the ascending aorta can occur with a histopathologic pattern of GCA but without the clinical stigmata of GCA.

The finding of aortitis should prompt the clinician to question the patient about other symptoms of GCA and to order imaging of the whole vascular tree. Ultrasonography and biopsy of the temporal arteries can be considered. Whether idiopathic aortitis is part of the GCA spectrum remains to be seen.

Laboratory tests often show anemia, leukocytosis, and thrombocytosis. Acute-phase reactants such as C-reactive protein and the erythrocyte sedimentation rate are often elevated. The sedimentation rate often exceeds 50 mm/hour and sometimes 100 mm/hour.

In 2 retrospective studies, the number of patients with GCA whose sedimentation rate was less than 50 mm/hour ranged between 5% and 11%.7,8 However, a small percentage of patients with GCA have normal inflammatory markers. Therefore, if the suspicion for GCA is high, treatment should be started and biopsy pursued.9 In patients with paraproteinemia or other causes of a spuriously elevated or low erythrocyte sedimentation rate, C-reactive protein is a more reliable test.

Polymyalgia rheumatica is another rheumatologic condition that can occur independently or in conjunction with GCA. It is characterized by stiffness and pain in the proximal joints such as the hips and shoulders, typically worse in the morning and better with activity. Although the patient may subjectively feel weak, a close neurologic examination will reveal normal muscle strength.

Polymyalgia rheumatica is observed in 40% to 60% of patients with GCA at the time of diagnosis; 16% to 21% of patients with polymyalgia rheumatica may develop GCA, especially if untreated.2,10

Differential diagnosis

Other vasculitides (eg, Takayasu arteritis) can also present with unexplained fever, anemia, and constitutional symptoms.

Infection should be considered if fever is present. An infectious disease accompanied by fever, headache, and elevated inflammatory markers can mimic GCA.

Nonarteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy can present with sudden vision loss, prompting concern for underlying GCA. Risk factors include hypertension and diabetes mellitus; other features of GCA, including elevated inflammatory markers, are generally absent.


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