BERLIN (dpa) – Many people complain of headaches or problems with vision occasionally. But if these problems crop up persistently for the first time over the age of 50, it could be a symptom of giant cell arteritis.
The disease is the most common vascular inflammatory disease affecting the whole body in people over the age of 50. It also affects women more often than men.
The illness needs to be treated as quickly as possible, but is difficult to diagnose early.
Arteritis is a faulty reaction by the immune system.
“It can no longer identify between what belongs to the body and what is foreign and reacts to the body’s own systems with inflammations,” explained Wolfgang Schmidt of the German Society for Rheumatology (DGRh).
It affects the lining of the arteries in the upper body as well as tiny blood vessels which supply the optical nerve.
“Large collections of cells form so that the veins become thick and swollen. In extreme cases it can cause blockages,” said Schmidt.
These changes in the blood vessels can manifest themselves in several ways. “In 70 per cent of patients, the most important and clearest symptom is getting sudden headaches, which can become worse when the patient is touched,” said Schmidt.
People can also experience pain when eating, flu-like symptoms, fever, night sweat, moderate weight loss and problems with eyesight. These rather general symptoms are often misinterpreted, with sometimes disastrous consequences. “If you have acute loss of sight in one eye, it’s too late for that eye,” said Thomas Ness of the University Eye Clinic in Freiburg.
If the patient is not treated immediately, the inflammation could spread and, in a worst-case scenario, the patient could lose the sight in the other eye within days.
Doctors diagnose the illness using a combination of methods, “A first sign can be a spike of inflammation markers in the blood,” said Klaus Amendt of the German Associations for Angiology Cardiovascular Medicine.
Palpitation and visual findings are also used. “The temporal arteries will be for example swollen, hard and very sensitive to pressure,” said Amendt.
Doctors may then use a medical imaging process. “The suspect arteries, the aorta and the subclavian artery will usually be imaged,” said Amendt.
The standard treatment for giant cell arteritis uses corticosteroids. “There’s no other drug which works as fast as cortisone,” said Ness.
“Furthermore, it’s a medication which has been in use for a very long time, so we know what possible side effects it can cause and what we can do about them.”
The dose can be continually reduced as the treatment progresses. “There have been only a few studies on how fast the reduction should be, so it’s at the discretion of the doctor,” said Schmidt. Most patients are treated for one and a half to three years.