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Diseases > Giant Cell Arteritis (GCA) > What can I do about it?

What can I do about Giant Cell Arteritis?

Being diagnosed with a disease like giant cell arteritis can be a little scary. The first thing is don’t panic. Take a deep breath. Although you might have been diagnosed with giant cell arteritis, you are not alone. Luckily, there are effective treatments available. Even if they don’t cure giant cell arteritis, they can make living with the condition much more comfortable.

If you have giant cell arteritis or think you may have it, your family doctor should immediately refer you to an expert in internal medicine or to a rheumatologist. A rheumatologist is a specialist doctor who is an expert in treating arthritis and other types of inflammatory diseases. This type of doctor is in the best position to help you diagnose and manage your condition.

Here are some recommendations on what you should do:

  • Learn as much as you can about this disease. Education is very powerful and we’ve aimed to develop this RheumInfo website to be accessible and easy to understand for everyday people living with giant cell arteritis and other forms of inflammatory arthritis
  • Attend your rheumatologist appointments regularly
  • Get your blood tests done as suggested by your rheumatologist
  • Learn about the medications used to treat giant cell arteritis. The RheumInfo website has many interactive and valuable tools to help you understand these medications and their impact on your disease

Treatment of Giant Cell Arteritis

People with giant cell arteritis can lead active and productive lives with the right kinds of treatment. Two key points are essential to remember: treat giant cell arteritis early and treat it aggressively. Don’t wait. Giant cell arteritis is a medical emergency that needs to be treated very quickly and aggressively because it can result in serious consequences, including blindness and stroke.

Why is it important to treat giant cell arteritis early?

If you treat giant cell arteritis early you are more likely to achieve better outcomes and prevent loss of vision. Even a few days can make a difference. Here’s an analogy. Imagine you are sitting in your living room enjoying a nice cup of coffee. You look over to the kitchen and see a fire burning on the stove. What do you think you’ll do? One option is to just sit there and wait until the fire gets worse and spreads to the walls or the ceiling. The second option is to grab the phone, dial the fire department, and grab the fire extinguisher.

You can think of giant cell arteritis like a fire in your arteries. You want to get that fire put out as quickly as possible so it doesn’t damage your body. We want to stop giant cell arteritis before it damages your arteries.

Why is it important to treat giant cell arteritis aggressively?

Using the same fire analogy, we’ve decided to call in the fire department. Now we need to make sure we have the right tools to put out the fire. We don’t want a bucket and water. We want a fire truck with a big hose. We might even want more than one fire truck. The faster we can get that fire out the better things will be in the long run.

Medications for Giant Cell Arteritis

Medications for giant cell arteritis are aimed at controlling the inflammation that can eventually damage the arteries that supply important organs and tissues in the body, such as the eyes and the brain. In some people, once inflammation is brought under control the disease can go into remission. When that happens, doses of medicines can sometimes be tapered down and eventually stopped. In other people, giant cell arteritis behaves more like a chronic (long-term) disease that must be controlled with small doses of medicine on an ongoing basis.

For more information about specific medications used to treat giant cell arteritis, refer to the “pictopamphlets” in the Medications section of this website.

Corticosteroids (prednisone)

Medications like prednisone help control inflammation. They also prevent long-term damage. Prednisone is a very effective medication to control the symptoms of giant cell arteritis. This medicine is usually started at a high dose (1 mg per kg of body weight) to quickly bring inflammation under control. Most people start to feel better within a few days of starting prednisone. Once symptoms have improved and markers of inflammation have come back to normal, the dose can start to be tapered down.

In the short-term, prednisone works very well to control symptoms. When used for long periods of time, prednisone can have side effects. You should to discuss the risks and benefits of using prednisone with your rheumatologist.

One of the side effects of using prednisone over the long term is bone loss. People taking prednisone for long periods of time should take a calcium and vitamin D supplement to protect their bones from osteoporosis. For more information, see the Osteoporosis section of the RheumInfo website.

DMARDs

The Disease Modifying Anti-Rheumatic Drugs (DMARDs) are medications that are typically used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and other types of inflammatory arthritis. An example that has been shown effective in some people with giant cell arteritis is methotrexate.

Most DMARDs take some time before they begin to work (about 6-12 weeks). Some people might not feel any effect when they first start taking DMARDs. Even if this happens, it’s important to keep taking DMARDs. Taking a DMARD like methotrexate can help reduce the dose of prednisone that’s needed to keep inflammation under control.

Biologics

Biologics are the newest class of medications that have been around for about a decade. These medications were specifically designed to target the immune system. A biologic called tocilizumab has shown some promising results in some people with giant cell arteritis. Before it can be used more widely, large studies are needed to confirm its role in managing the disease.

Exercises for Giant Cell Arteritis

Exercise is important to overall health. However, if you have giant cell arteritis it is important to discuss exercise with your doctor.

Regular physical activity can also help you deal with fatigue. The level and amount of exercise you can do depends on the extent and activity of your giant cell arteritis. A good rule of thumb is to aim for 20-30 minutes of physical activity every day.

Aerobic exercise such as walking, swimming or bicycling works your heart and increases your overall fitness. It is also an important part of keeping a healthy weight. This is especially important in people who take prednisone over long periods of time, since it can lead to weight gain. A trained arthritis physiotherapist can help design an exercise program tailored to you and your needs.

Below are some useful articles on exercising with arthritis – many of the tips can also be applied to people with giant cell arteritis:

Exercise and Arthritis: An article by arthritis physiotherapist, Marlene Thompson

Exercising in a Flare: Another excellent article written by Marlene Thompson on how to cope with flares through your exercise routine.

Natural or Home Remedies for Giant Cell Arteritis

There are no known natural remedies or complementary therapies that have been proven to help giant cell arteritis in any significant way. However, it’s important to check with your rheumatologist to make sure that nothing interacts with your medication if you choose to use natural remedies or complementary therapies.

Diet for Giant Cell Arteritis

Questions about diet and disease are very common. We all want to know what we can do to help ourselves. Can we change our diet to improve our immune system and help our giant cell arteritis? Changing our diet gives us a sense of control over a disease which often seems to have a mind of its own.

Unfortunately, there is no diet that has been proven to significantly alter the course of giant cell arteritis or other types of inflammatory arthritis. Following the basics of healthy eating can help improve health and well-being in everyone, including those with giant cell arteritis. It can also help prevent or manage weight gain in people who take prednisone over long periods of time.

Alcohol and Giant Cell Arteritis

Many of us like to share a glass of wine, a beer, or a spirit from time to time. Unfortunately, due to the nature of giant cell arteritis, some people may turn to alcohol to help cope with the pain and distress. Alcoholic beverages are not an effective treatment for giant cell arteritis. They can also interact with some medications. Examples include DMARDs such as methotrexate.

Besides, there are effective treatments available for giant cell arteritis, so you don’t need to try to manage your illness with alcohol.

Smoking and Giant Cell Arteritis

Cigarette smoking, whether you have giant cell arteritis or not, has no positive effects on any aspect of your health.

Smoking can also increase the risk of stroke. So if you are a smoker with giant cell arteritis, quitting could be one of the best things you can do to improve your overall health.

Concluding Thoughts

Giant cell arteritis is a very serious disease. Left untreated it can lead to severe problems including loss of vision and stroke. If you feel symptoms that suggest this disease it is very important to see your doctor immediately.