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Diseases > Giant Cell Arteritis (GCA) > What is it?

What is Giant Cell Arteritis?

Giant cell arteritis is a type of vasculitis. The word vasculitis means inflammation of blood vessels. Tis inflammation results in swelling of the lining of the blood vessel. Sometimes the vessels are painful. People with giant cell arteritis have inflammation in blood vessels called arteries. The most common arteries affected are in the area around the temples, but medium to large sized arteries anywhere in the body can be affected.

Giant cell arteritis is considered a medical emergency. That’s because inflammation can damage the arteries that are affected. The result is that blood supply can be cut off to important organs and tissues in the body. When large vessels in the head and neck area are damaged, blindness or stroke can result.

What Causes Giant Cell Arteritis?

We don’t fully understand what causes giant cell arteritis, but researchers around the world are actively studying this condition to learn more about it. What we do know is that parts of the immune system are “activated” or “turned on” in people with giant cell arteritis and other types of vasculitis. One possibility is that the immune system is triggered by an infection and starts to attack the arteries. However, the source of such an infection has yet to be identified.

Who Gets Giant Cell Arteritis?

Giant cell arteritis is a disease that almost always affects older people. People who are age 70 and older are most commonly affected by giant cell arteritis. The condition can also occur in people in their 50s or 60’s, but this is less common. Giant cell arteritis is about twice as common in women than men. For reasons that are not understood, people born in Northern Europe seem to have the highest rates of giant cell arteritis.

Giant cell arteritis is sometimes associated with another rheumatic disease called polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR). About half of the people who have giant cell arteritis also have PMR.

How is Giant Cell Arteritis Diagnosed?

Giant cell arteritis is best diagnosed by a rheumatologist. A rheumatologist is a specialist in arthritis and autoimmune diseases. The rheumatologist will take a complete history and perform a thorough physical examination. This is usually followed by blood tests and other investigations.

What tests are Done to Diagnose Giant Cell Arteritis?

Special blood tests can be done to help diagnose giant cell arteritis. However, there is no “magic bullet” blood test that can diagnose giant cell arteritis. Your doctor will probably start with a simple blood test called a Complete Blood Count or CBC. Other blood tests will look for markers of inflammation in the body, such as C-reactive protein (CRP) and Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate (ESR). These tests are not specific for giant cell arteritis – they just indicate whether or not your body is fighting inflammation somewhere.

Imaging tests can also be used to look for evidence of inflammation in the artery walls. This can include ultrasound and/or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). While these tests can hint to a diagnosis of giant cell arteritis, they are not definitive.

The best test for diagnosing giant cell arteritis is a biopsy of the temporal artery. A biopsy involves removing a small piece of the artery. This involves a small operation. The artery is then evaluated under a microscope to see if there is inflammation in the wall.

Read more – What is it going to do to me?