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Giant Cell Arteritis; One Man's Experience
Giant Cell Arteritis, GCA - also known as Temporal Arteritis, TA
Mason A. Clark
Giant Cell Arteritis Emergency
GCA is an emergency, can cause some loss of vision.
If you have or may have GCA you must consult a physician immediately and you must participate intelligently in the treatment.
This post describes my exciting GCA experience with a favorable result.
I am not a medical doctor.
Some of my understandings of my own experience may differ from that of my doctor and your doctor.
This report is not medical advise. It is simply one person's experience with GCA.
(If you wish, you may jump to a 20-minute VIDEO
but I recommend reading the text on this page -- or the book.)
Giant Cell Arteritis Definition by Mayo Clinic staff
"Giant cell arteritis (GCA) is an inflammation of the lining of your arteries -- the blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood from your heart to the rest of your body. Most often, it affects the arteries in your head, especially those in your temples. For this reason, giant cell arteritis is sometimes called temporal arteritis or cranial arteritis.
"Giant cell arteritis frequently causes headaches, jaw pain, and blurred or double vision. Blindness and, less often, stroke are the most serious complications of giant cell arteritis.
"Prompt treatment with corticosteroid medications usually relieves symptoms of giant cell arteritis and may prevent loss of vision. You should start feeling better within days of starting your treatment."
Diagnosis of Giant Cell Arteritis
American College of Rheumatology recommends that GCA be diagnosed if three of the following are true:
An additional, strong clue is the very quick relief of symptoms by taking prednisone, usually in one or two days.
- Age is 50 or older
- New, localized headache
- Temporal artery tenderness or decreased pulse
- Blood test: erythrocyte sedimentation rate, ESR, greater than 50 mm/hr
- Temporal-artery biopsy positive for GCA
If GCA is suspect, prednisone should be given immediately to prevent loss of vision.
GCA symptoms reported in the literature
- Weight loss -- (I went from 180 to 172 pounds during months before GCA diagnosis; lost another 8 or 10 before it began to rise)
- Malaise: The feeling of overall ill health and weakness.
- Constitutional symptoms: In this subset of GCA, the disease process.
is dominated by manifestations of system-wide inflammation, including rise in ESR and/or CRP
- Dry cough (a cough is not often listed as a symptom of GCA but has been reported)
- Headaches: throbbing, sharp or dull headaches may bring you to your doctor.
- Tenderness near the temples: Noticed most when wearing glasses, combing hair or lying on a pillow.
- Fever: Spiking temperature and chills will bring you to the doctor. Or low-grade fever
- Loss of appetite
- Jaw claudication: pain, tension and weakness of the muscles that allow you to chew and talk.
- Less common: Tongue, throat and neck pain
- Amaurosis fugax: A fleeting visual blurring with heat or exercise, or posture-related visual blurring;
it may precede partial or complete blindness and requires an emergency visit to the doctor.
- Double vision (diplopia)
- Blindness: Loss of vision is sudden, painless and usually permanent.
My Giant Cell Arteritis Diagnosis
I had several unusual health experiences in the six months before my GCA crisis:
- An ear infection, only time in my life. Antibiotics cured it.
- A red eye, only time in my life. It subsided in a week or two.
- A loss of weight from about 183 to about 173. Unusual for me
- A rising resting heart rate from 72 to 90 over a three-month period.
- Perhaps a brief incident of double vision -- the date was not recorded.
I was not otherwise aware of a health problem during this time until a dry cough sent me to a pulmonary doctor.
The x-ray and CT scan of my lungs did not explain the cough and the diagnosis was "post-nasal drip" but
an antibiotic was prescribed "just in case."' The CT scan was done on February 5.
Then, on February 9, 2009 there began a severe headache which on the next day was entirely on the right side.
Simultaneously -- on the same day -- there began a severe, persistent constipation -- unusual for me.
On February 27 I visited my primary-care physician and had a blood test including ESR, the "sed rate"
The diagnosis of GCA was made on March 11, 2009 based on severe headaches on the right side and blood tests showing a high ESR (erythmocyte sedimenation rate) of 50.
Prednisone was begun at 60 mg. each day.
A biopsy of a temporal artery was done on March 17, 2009 and confirmed GCA.
A brain MRI and a colonoscopy had been ordered. Neither showed anything important (but the constipation was brought to an abrupt end).
Treatment of Giant Cell Arteritis is Prednisone
Note: prednisone is commonly prescribed in the U.S., prednisolone in the U.K. Other variations of
prednisone may be prescribed, such as methyl prednisone and hydrocortisone. Coated tablets are sometimes
used to minimize stomache irritation. The differences are not important, although the quantities
prescribed and schedule of use may differ. For this article, only the word "prednisone" will be used,
Prednisone or other corticosteriods are the only treatment of GCA.
Prednisone does not cure the arteritis. It only provides relief from the symptoms and reduces the inflammation.
The inflammation is harmful to large, flexible arteries including the large aorta leading from the heart and large leg arteries.
It is important that the inflammation be reduced.
The arteritis subsides on its own over a period of time of its own choosing. That time may range from less than
a year to two years, five years, or the remainder of lifetime. As time goes on, less prednisone is needed culminating in
as little as zero or one milligram per day to as much as 16 mg. per day.
The treatment task is to reduce the prednisone as quickly as possible without permitting a dangerous flare-up of
the arteritis. Dangerous because some degree of loss of vision may occur. Too-rapid a withdrawal may also cause
a cortisol insufficiency.
Cortisol Insufficiency -- the Addison's-Disease Effect
The endocrine system controls the amount of cortisol -- the adrenal cortex hormone -- that is fed to the blood stream.
The prednisone treatement causes the system to reduce the generation of cortisol. The adrenal cortex goes into
hybernation and in a few weeks time loses its ability to produce cortisol. Addison's disease is a failure of the glands to produce cortisol.
Withdrawing prednisone leaves the body short of cortisol. The symptoms of Addison's disease appear, possibly including a life-threatening crisis.
(A list of cortisol-insufficiency symptoms is given as an Appendix)
Prednisone must be withdrawn slowly enough to allow the adrenal glands to recover and to supply the natural amount of cortisol.
But there is an urgency in this withdrawal because prednisone has serious side effects.
Prednisone Side Effects
Your doctor will discuss these with you. Some side effects demand regular attention.
I experienced those marked **
- ** Insomnia (only temporarily at highest prednisone levels)
- ** Fluid retention, causing swelling in lower legs (only temporarily at highest prednisone levels)
- ** Increased appetite, weight gain -- I recovered only what I had lost
- ** Blurred vision -- perhaps, like "watering" of eyes, not significant
- ** Cataracts -- barely perceptible March 2012 after three years.
- Loss of calcium from bones which can lead to osteoporosis and fractures
protective drugs are often prescribed (these have side effects)
- Elevated pressure in the eyes (glaucoma) (regular tests are imperative)
- Stomach irritation
protective drugs are often prescribed (these have side effects)
- High blood sugar, which can trigger or worsen diabetes (glucose tests are imperative)
- Increased blood pressure (should be monitored)
Muscle weakness; Mood swings; Increased risk of infections
Thin skin, easy bruising and slower wound healing
Acne; Nervousness, restlessness; Increased growth of body hair
Swollen, "puffy" face; Weight gain; fat deposits abdomen, face, back of neck
Prednisone Withdrawal -- the Story of GCA Treatrment
There are three objectives:
- prevent damage to arteries by the GCA inflammation, especially the artery supplying the optic nerve behind the eye.
Damage to this nerve causes loss of vision, perhaps complete and irreversible.
Leg arteries and the large aorta arteries may also be damaged.
- minimize prednisone side effects
- avoid a crisis of too little cortisol, simulating Addison's disease and dangerous.
GCA may be be self-curing but may last from six months to two years or longer.
During its life it may do great damage. Treatment is essential.
Prednisone wards off the damaging inflamation, giving GCA time to subside, but does not cure GCA.
Withdrawal of prednisone is experimental. Paraphrasing the words of William Blake:
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
We never know how much is enough until we know how much is not enough.
The GCA fire is hiding under the carpet of prednisone.
Lifting the carpet -- withdrawing the prednisone too aggressively -- can let the GCA fire flare up.
GCA symptoms at this stage may be very subtle or the first warning symptom may by some degree of vision loss.
For that reason, caution is required.
In addition to the clue given by symptoms, blood tests are used.
The "sedimentation rate" (ESR) and the C-reactive protein (CRP) measure the GCA activity, but
these are affected by other inflamatory events, such as a common cold.
See the important ESR Appendix
Prednisone withdrawal is an exciting and dangerous, but necessary game.
The following description of my experience is easy to analyze long after the fact.
Hindsight is a wonderful tool. Making decisions in real time is far more difficult.
Nothing here should be read as a criticism of the decisions of my doctor or myself.
A detailed chronology of my experience is given in the book.
The graphs below shows my prednisone withdrawal, the rise and fall of ESR and CRP, and
- At 12.5 mg, a probable Addison crisis that put me in the hospital for two nights, getting
a strong dose of a kind of prednisone intravenously.
- At 10 mg, a relapse signaled by headaches and two swollen arteries above
my right ear, one with a spot painful to touch. (This flare-up could have struck an
artery affecting my vision.)
- at 5 to 3 mg, uncomfortable "wooden" legs discouraging long walks
Giant cell arteritis smolders under the prednisone carpet, waiting its
chance to flare
The blood tests, ESR and CRP, along with symptoms give us instruction for
the management of the prednisone.
The new patient and doctor will not know the patient's normal ESR and CRP.
The normals for the population do not apply. They are well-known but useless in
managing the prednisone for a particular patient. The individual's normal can only be learned by
observation as treatment proceeds.
Dr. Hunder, Professor Emeritus at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine recommends:
"Results of ESR and CRP testing should be interpreted in the context of the patient's typical values prior
to the onset of illness, when available, and the patient's age."
The patient's healthy ESR and CRP are not usually known and must be learned from the lowest
values seen during treatment. It is essential to understand that the population normal so ofter mentioned
may be dangerously misleading in the on-going treatment of an individual.
The chart below shows that more than 84% of men and 66% of women have a normal ESR less than eight (8).
It is important to recognize that a person with a normal ESR of four (4) who is found to have an ESR of -- say -- 12 may
have inflammation that needs more prednisone. Prolonged, unsupressed inflammation is damaging to the arteries.
CRP also has a distribution among the healthy population:
The values less than two or three are only measured by a high-sensitivity test.
These hsCRP values *may* be an indicator for heart condition.
With GCA, the values are likely to be greater than two or three.
See my chart below for an example of the relation between ESR and CRP.
Both ESR and CRP increase somewhat with age and both are slightly higher for women.
Looking at the lows on the graph below, my normal ESR appears to be between four and ten, perhaps six.
My normal CRP must be less than 2.9. (The lab usually reported "less than 2.9" -- its test limit.)
Laboratories tag test numbers to call the doctor's attention to abnormal values. For ESR, 20 is a common
level to be tagged. It is not the number to use in treatment of an individual, whose normal may be significantly different.
My history is summarized in the graph below:
The graph below shows the experience at the University of Iowa Hospital.
My experience is superimposed.
Here are eight examples of actual prednisone esr/crp graphs of people I have known.
Each GCA / PMR patient differs, because of differences in them or differences in their treatment.
The Management of GCA with Prednisone
There is a controversy about the guides for management of prednisone.
Rheumatologists are rightly anxious to reduce the amount of prednisone.
Prednisone has serious side effects.
Opthalmologists are rightly anxious to prevent loss of vision, a too-common effect of GCA.
Dr. Hayreh summarizes this controversy in his articles and in this letter to me:
The cause of confusion about the role of ESR and CRP in the management of GCA is due to the following reasons:
- Rheumatologists and ophthalmologists have a totally different perspective on management of GCA.
For rheumatologists GCA is a disease with aches and pains and other systemic symptoms.
For ophthalmologists GCA is a blinding disease. That determines marked difference in the management of GCA.
- Rheumatologists tend to mix PMR and GCA when managing them.
However, PMR is a mild disease and there is no risk of blindness.
In sharp contrast to that, the most important complications of GCA is blindness -
thus it is a serious disease with devastating complication.
That determines the difference in basic management of GCA.
- In my studies of about 300 patients with GCA, I found that the only way to manage GCA
to prevent blindness is to regulate the therapy and management is by doing ESR and CRP regularly.
Rheumatologists advocate that the therapy should be regulated by symptoms only,
which I have found totally wrong and dangerous strategy. Symptoms are no guide to the activity of GCA.
I have a large number of patients in whom ESR and CRP went sky high without recurrence of systemic symptoms.
I have seen patients who were managed by rheumatologists with that outlook coming to me with loss of vision.
Thus, the only way to prevent blindness due to GCA is by ESR and CRP estimations.
Sohan Singh Hayreh, MD, MS, PhD, DSc, FRCS, FRCOphth (Hon)
Professor Emeritus of Ophthalmology & Director Ocular Vascular Clinic
Department of Ophthalmology & Visual Sciences
College of Medicine, University of Iowa
Avoiding flares by the slow reduction of prednisone may result in the use of less prednisone.
The slow reduction minimizes symptoms and leaves the blood tests as the best guide.
The Paradox: Flare First, Treatment After
Many articles on PMR and GCA make a statement such as this:
"A rise in ESR or CRP without clinical evidence of a flare does not justify a change of
"An isolated rise in ESR or CRP does not justify an increment in the prednisone dose."
But, in the same paragraph one may find, "a high relapse rate that may be caused by rapid
reduction of prednisone leads to an increased cumulative dose and subsequent adverse events."
It is not a paradox that slow reduction uses less prednisone than a too-fast reduction. The flare let loose by the fast reduction forces the use of more prednisone.
AppendicesESR and CRP
Understanding Blood Tests -- Return to text
ESR and CRP are measures of inflammation. They support one another.
"ESR" Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate. "CRP" C-Reactive Protein
These blood tests, along with symptoms, guide treatment.
For ESR the population healthy values, increasing with age from 55 to 90
average 6 to 11 for men and 9 to 11 for women
95% of healthy men are below 14 to 18. (ages 55 to 90)
95% of healthy women are below 21 to 23. (ages 55 to 90)
This is data from 3910 healthy Norwegian adults.
To determine YOUR healthy value look for low numbers
as you go along in your treatment.
For ESR it will be somewhere between zero and 40, probably beteween zero and ten.
A graph of ESR and CRP against time is helpful -- just pencil and paper
My fancy graph was shown above.
See on the graph that my normal ESR seems to be about six -- something among
the lowest values.
The values above ten were certainly not normal for me.
It is apparent that we (my doctor and I) were withdrawing the prednisone too fast.
At the early ESR of 15 I had a flare with two temporal arteries swollen that could have cost me some loss
of vision if they had been optic-nerve arteries.
During the times of ESR numbers above ten, there were weak, fleeting head-pain
symptoms -- symptoms that could be denied, but the numbers revealed the inflammation.
Inflammation of my leg arteries brought the day when the ESR and CRP both screamed "STOP"
and I skidded to a stop on prednisone withdrawal, perhaps barely in time to save my legs
from more serious artery inflammation. Such inflammation does the arteries no good.
Notice that the ESR and CRP may be raised by other inflammations,
such as the 17 and 3.6 at a common cold.
It may also be worth noting that keeping a careful record may reveal a laboratory error. Errors do happen and could
cause an error in treatment.
Symptoms of Cortisol Insufficiency (Addisonian)Return to text
A deficiency of the adrenal cortex hormone, cortisol, is an Addison's-disease crisis.
After weeks of prednisone the adrenal cortex "goes into hibernation."
Then withdrawal of prednisone too quickly may induce an Addison's crisis until the
adrenal's get back into their business. In my case this apparently happened after going from 15 mg to 12.5 mg.
Neither I nor my doctor saw this crisis coming although there were warning symptoms for a week.
I had leg pain on Sunday, lethargy all week, no appetite after Thursday.
Upon awakening in a sweat the following Monday morning, my sitting or standing blood pressure was 70/50 and I could barely walk.
My doctor ordered me to the emergency ward where I received intra-venous cortisone and fluid and was hospitalized for two nights.
Countless tests confirmed my age of 88 but nothing else to worry about.
These tests were necessary for the hospital to rule out other causes of my collapse.
I experienced the warnings marked **.
- ** Sudden penetrating pain in the legs, lower back, or abdomen
- ** Severe lethargy
- ** A general ill feeling
- ** Fever
- ** Loss of appetite
- ** Lightheadedness standing (my blood pressure: 70/50)
- ** Profound weakness
- Muscle weakness
- Loss of consciousness
- Body aches
- Abdominal pain
- Rapid heart rate
- Skin rash or lesions
- ** vibration felt in soles of feet -- I experienced this odd sensation from time to time.
- Nausea or vomiting; dehydration
- Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)
- Flank pain, joint pain
- Confusion or coma
- Rapid respiratory rate (see tachypnea)
- Shaking chills
- Slow, sluggish movement
- Unusual and excessive sweating on face or palms
- Difficulty breathing
- Mental changes
- Salt craving
- Longer term effects: unintentional weight loss; darkening of the skin
There are many reliable sources of information. GCA is complex and there some disagreements.
The internet is easily searched for "gca temporal arteritis".
Major clinics offer articles on GCA
There are two chapter in a free book that provide much detailed information about GCA, intended for reading by specialists:
These may be downloaded in .pdf Acrobat format and printed:
Ch. 14 "Diagnosis and Treatment of Giant Cell Arteritis (Temporal Arteritis)"
Regarding attacks of the arteritis on other arteries than the head:
Ch. 15 "Extra-Cranial Manifestations of Giant Cell Arteritis"
Opthalmalogy Department of the University of Iowa hospital
has been referenced in the text above. Their articles are must reading for anyone with GCA.
They give a perspective on treatment that differs from the standard practice of rheumatologists, who are rightly worried about the side effects of prednisone.
James W. Rupp's book telling the story of his wife's long and difficult medical history:
"Giant Cell Arteritis - An Elusive Odyssey"
Search Google for James Rupp giant cell arteritis
This detailed history has much to instruct us. He gives many references to medical literature.
Here is a video, also on YouTube, which adds to this web page and the book.
Watch for me, the goats, two controversies, many graphs, and a walk at the end.
There is a one hour Vasculitis Foundation talk about GCA on Youtube:
VF SYMPOSIUM 2010 Volume 05
at: "Large Vessel Vasculitis"
Cornelia Weyand, M.D., PhD, Stanford University
Curry Koening, M.D., MS, University of nUtah
Doctor Weyand expresses strongly the rheumatology belief that symptoms, not laboratory tests,
are a safe guide to prednisone withdrawal.
Doctor Hayreh, an ophthalmologist, differs -- stating that only ESR and CRP should be used to
manage prednisone withdrawal.
Treatment requires that the serious harms caused by GCA be balanced against the serious side-effects of prednisone. Watch my own movie, above, for a discussion of this.
is a YouTube video visit by Dr. Gary Hoffman of the Cleveland Clinic with a woman who lost vision in one eye and a similar video for a man with GCA and no complications.
Warning ! Be selective of other GCA YouTubes.
Some are misleading, useless, or ugly.
Be wary of "Alternative Medicine" money-making schemes.
There are several support groups on the internet for GCA and PMR.
A friendly, informative, and helpful group is: PMR and GCA Forum in Great Britain
This is a forum with many topics. Look for the special one: "EILEEN'S INPUT - VALUABLE INFORMATION ON PMR/GCA"
Other threads (subjects) wander into being a women's tea party (a man's perspective). This has the advantage of maintaining a group
of attentive, experienced members ready to share.
Closely related UK sites are:
Polymyalgia Rheumatica and Giant Cell Arteritis
Contributors' Brief Histories
An American group, responsive but less active, is: health.groups.yahoo.com/group/giantcellarteritis
The "Inspire" group is becoming more active: www.inspire.com Search for GCA or PMR.
Two other groups have personal experiences but are harder to use and not very active:
Have a comment or question? e-mail to Mason Clark (Do remove "REMOVETHIS" from the address.)
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