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Are you at risk for temporal arteritis?

It can start with a severe headache and pain in your temples. Before long, you may have blurred or double vision in one eye and your jaw may ache when you chew. If you’re hoping to pop some over-the-counter painkillers and ride out the discomfort, you may be putting yourself at risk for a serious health threat.

Those symptoms you’re experiencing may be signs of temporal arteritis, a somewhat mysterious disease (doctors aren’t certain what causes the condition to develop). Left unchecked, the condition can lead to irreversible blindness and, sometimes, stroke. Fortunately, early diagnosis and treatment can spare your sight and restore your health.

Symptoms to watch for

Temporal arteritis—also known as cranial cell arteritis or giant cell arteritis—occurs when arteries in your temples become inflamed. You may notice in the mirror that these arteries, which run alongside your eyes, become visibly swollen and cordlike, as well as sensitive to touch. What’s not so obvious is that, beneath your skin, your blood vessels have narrowed, restricting blood flow to your eyes and causing vision problems. Some people with the condition find that they suddenly—and permanently—lose sight in one eye. Flulike symptoms, such as throat pain, appetite loss, weight loss, scalp sensitivity, fever and body aches, are also common.

You also face the risk of a blood clot forming in the affected artery, which can obstruct blood flow. If the supply of blood to your brain is interrupted, you may experience stroke. That’s why it’s critical to be alert to symptoms and seek treatment early.

Fighting the disease

If you are diagnosed with temporal arteritis, take comfort: You can soon resume an active lifestyle. Treated effectively, the condition rarely recurs and your quality of life will not be affected.

If your doctor suspects temporal arteritis, he or she will prescribe a high dose of prednisone, a type of anti-inflammatory medication called a corticosteroid, to halt progression of the disease and damage to the eyes. You’ll feel relief from symptoms within a few days. If tests reveal that you have the condition, you will need to remain on your medication for as long as two years. During that time, your doctor will reduce the dosage slowly while continuing to monitor for inflammation. Prolonged corticosteroid use may cause side effects such as bone thinning, weight gain, eye problems, diabetes and high blood pressure. Talk to your doctor about lifestyle changes—such as exercise and a healthy diet—that can help you avoid some of these side effects.

Who’s at risk?

Temporal arteritis affects about 200 of every 100,000 people, most often striking older adults (average age at onset is 70) and two to three times as many women than men. Some researchers think the disease may be linked to some types of pneumonia or severe viral infections. Others believe it may be inherited: It often affects people of Northern European descent. The disease, however, has been found in all ethnic groups. People with rheumatoid arthritis and a condition called polymyalgia rheumatica are also at risk.

Testing for temporal arteritis

If you notice signs of temporal arteritis, see your doctor as soon as possible. He or she will review your medical history to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms and will examine your temporal arteries for signs of tenderness and rigidity. Tests for temporal arteritis include:

  • a blood test for C-reactive protein, which is produced in the liver when inflammation is present in the body
  • an erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR or “sed rate”), which measures the speed with which red blood cells collect at the bottom of a test tube. An unusually high ESR indicates inflammation.
  • a biopsy of the temporal artery (using local anesthesia) to make a definitive diagnosis.

The link to polymyalgia rheumatica

Polymyalgia rheumatica is an inflammatory condition that causes stiffness and aching in the neck, shoulders and pelvis, along with fatigue, fever and weight loss. Nearly half of all patients diagnosed with temporal arteritis are also diagnosed with polymyalgia rheumatica, and scientists believe the two conditions could be manifestations of the same disease process. If you are diagnosed with polymyalgia rheumatica, your doctor should also examine you for signs of temporal arteritis, which can appear even when symptoms of polymyalgia rheumatica vanish.