Giant cell arteritis (GCA) is a condition in which medium and large arteries, usually in the head and neck, become inflamed.

As the arteries around the temples are usually affected, giant cell arteritis is sometimes called temporal arteritis.

The condition is one of the most common types of vasculitis, which is the general term for the inflammation of arteries and veins (blood vessels).

Symptoms of giant cell arteritis include:

  • aching and soreness in and around the temples
  • jaw muscle pain while eating
  • vision loss

These can often develop suddenly, but may follow vague symptoms such as weight loss and prolonged tiredness.

Read more about the symptoms of giant cell arteritis.

Seeking medical help

Giant cell arteritis should be regarded as a medical emergency because without prompt treatment it can lead to permanent visual impairment.

You should contact your GP immediately if you suddenly develop a severe headache, jaw pain when eating, blurred or double vision, or a sore scalp.

Diagnosis and treatment

Treatment for giant cell arteritis will usually begin as soon as possible. This may mean that treatment begins before a diagnosis is confirmed.

An examination of your symptoms and blood tests may be carried out if it is thought that you have giant cell arteritis. However, the most effective way to diagnose the condition is to remove some tissue from your temporal artery, so that it can be studied. This procedure is known as a temporal artery biopsy.

The main treatment for giant cell arteritis is steroid medication (corticosteroids). Most people need to take steroids on a long-term basis to help prevent their symptoms returning. A two-year course of corticosteroids is usually required.

Other types of medication, such as low-dose aspirin and immunosuppressants (medication that suppresses the immune system), may also be used along with corticosteroids to reduce the risk of the condition recurring and complications developing.

Read more about diagnosing giant cell arteritis and treating giant cell arteritis.


Although treatment can reduce the risk of serious complications, the damage to the blood vessels associated with giant cell arteritis can increase the risk of other serious problems developing. These include permanent visual impairmentabdominal aortic aneurysm and cardiovascular disease.

Read more about the possible complications of giant cell arteritis.

Who is affected?

Giant cell arteritis is a fairly uncommon condition. In the UK, it is estimated that about one in every 4,500 people will develop a new case of giant cell arteritis each year.

The condition is age-related. It only tends to affect adults over the age of 50, and it is usually adults over 60 years old who develop it.

The condition is three times more common in women than in men. It is also seven times more common in white people than in black people.

The cause of giant cell arteritis is unclear. However, it is thought that a combination of genetic and environmental factors - such as an infection - may be responsible for the condition.

Swollen arteries on the temples are a sign of giant cell arteritis 

Polymyalgia rheumatica

Around half of people with giant cell arteritis also develop polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR), a related but less serious condition. PMR causes inflammation of the muscles and sometimes joints, resulting in symptoms that can include:

  • shoulder, neck and hip pain
  • stiffness of the affected muscles (which is often most obvious after waking up)

The symptoms of polymyalgia rheumatica can develop before, after, or at the same time as the symptoms of giant cell arteritis.

Read more about polymyalgia rheumatica.

Page last reviewed: 23/01/2013

Next review due: 23/01/2015