A new drug is approved for temporal arteritis, cause of headaches in those over 50

Temporal arteritis occurs in one out of 5,000 people over 50. Women are 3-4 times more likely to be affected. It is not common below the age of 60 and becomes more prevalent with the advancing age. Temporal arteritis is also known as giant cell arteritis because it causes inflammation of arteries with giant cells seen under the microscope.

Headache is often the first symptom and it is typically localized to one temple, but it can involve other parts of the head and occur on both sides. If left undiagnosed and untreated temporal arteritis can cause a stroke and blindness, which can affect both eyes.

Besides headaches, temporal arteritis can cause neck and jaw pain, weakness, muscle aches, and a mild fever. The preliminary diagnosis is made by blood tests (ESR and CRP) and it is confirmed by a biopsy of the temporal artery. Polymyalgia rheumatica is a related rheumatological condition, which can occur alone or with temporal arteritis and it causes severe muscle pains.

Temporal arteritis (and polymyalgia rheumatica) are treated with steroid medications, such as prednisone. Although the initial dose is high, relatively small doses are usually effective for maintenance. Since the condition can last for years and long-term intake of prednisone can cause many potentially serious side effects it is very important to perform a temporal artery biopsy in most cases, rather than rely just on blood tests and clinical diagnosis.

Subcutaneous injection of Actemra (tocilizumab) was just approved by the FDA for the treatment of temporal arteritis. This drug has been available since 2010 for the treatment of rheumatoid and other forms of arthritis. Actemra was injected every two weeks for a year along with prednisone, but more patients were able to get off prednisone if they received Actemra rather than a placebo injection. Unfortunately Actemra also has potentially dangerous side effects, such as serious infections and it requires regular blood tests.

Because headache is one of the main symptoms of giant cell arteritis, the condition is often diagnosed by a neurologist or a primary care doctor. The treatment though is typically handled by a rheumatologist and they are already familiar with tocilizumab.

Submit comment