8 surprising facts about giant cell arteritis

Giant cell arteritis (GCA) is a serious and difficult to diagnose autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of the arteries, the major vessels that carry blood from the heart to the rest of the body. Arteries in the head and neck, but also in the chest, are usually affected.1 It can cause headaches, scalp tenderness, jaw and arm pain, and - if untreated - even blindness and stroke.2

Read on for 8 things you probably didn’t know about this little-known condition.


The first case of GCA was described more than 125 years ago...

A report in 1890 described an elderly man with "red streaks" on his forehead.3


...but the term giant cell arteritis was not used until 50 years later.

In a 1941 article in The Journal of Pathology, J.R. Gilmour named the condition "giant cell arteritis" based on microscopic examination of inflamed arteries.4


The term "giant cell" is used because cells of the immune system known as macrophages can become fused together within the inflamed walls of the artery.

GCA symptoms are so varied that it can be very difficult to diagnose this disease. A biopsy of the artery to look for these giant cells as well as other features can conclusively diagnose GCA.


Because of the range of symptoms, people with GCA often see a variety of medical professionals

- general practitioners, rheumatologists, neurologists, cardiologists, ophthalmologists/opticians and dentists - before receiving a correct diagnosis.5


GCA affects two to three times more women than men.6

Many autoimmune diseases are more common in females, but the reason for this is not known.7


Some people with GCA may experience pain when chewing (also known as jaw claudication).

This is due to the inflammation of blood vessels caused in GCA, meaning that the flow of oxygen and other essential nutrients into muscles or tissue is restricted.


In rare cases, GCA can also cause tongue tissue to die (necrosis)

- because the cells on the tongue are starved of oxygen.


People with GCA report seeing "shark teeth" or "white clouds" in their field of vision.

This is a sign of vision impairment associated with GCA – up to 20% of sufferers will have permanent vision loss.8


  • 1. NHS Choices. Giant cell arteritis (temporal arteritis). Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/giant-cell-arteritis/Pages/Introduction.aspx. Last accessed October 2016.
  • 2. Eamonn M, et al. Polymyalgia rheumatica and giant cell arteritis, Rheumatology and Immunology, Section 13: 1147-51.
  • 3. Hunder GG. History of giant cell arteritis (GCA) and polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR). Rheumatol. 2005;44(suppl 3):iii1.
  • 4. Gilmour JR. Giant-cell chronic arteritis. J. Pathol. 1941;53(2):263-77.
  • 5. Sheldon CA, et al. Giant cell arteritis presenting with bilateral loss of vision and jaw pain: reminder of a potentially devastating condition. J Can Dent Assoc. 2011;77:b55.