Horton Disease: What is it? How Can it be Prevented?

Giant Cell Arteritis, also known as Horton Disease, is an attack on the body from its own immune system that results in painful inflammation of the arteries, usually around the temples and eye area. While a soothing head rub helps most typical headaches, patients with Horton Disease usually experience a painful, tender scalp and temple area.

Other symptoms may include vision loss or double vision, neck pain, fatigue, fever, or a combination of these.

To diagnose giant cell arteritis, your doctor will perform a minimally-invasive biopsy, taking a small portion of your temporal arterial tissue for lab analysis. On inspection, the blood cells themselves can appear enlarged under a microscope when compared with healthy cells, contributing to the "giant cell" in this disease's name.


Since causes are still unknown, preventing Horton Disease is tricky. So usually we would focus on lowering your risk. But in this case, the biggest risk factors are age and gender, two things you cannot easily change. Women are 2 to 3 times as likely as men to develop giant cell arteritis, and the average age of symptoms' onset is 72. Very rarely, if ever, does a patient under 50 show up with giant cell arteritis. Some studies have suggested people of northern European descent (particularly Scandinavian) may be at higher risk for Horton Disease.

It's true you don't have much control over your age or gender or lineage. But you're not completely powerless, either. Smoking increases risk of developing giant cell arteritis by 600 percent, so talk to your doctor about methods for quitting.

This, combined with early detection, are your best tools for lowering risk.

Complications and Treatment

Without (or indeed, before) treatment, giant cell arteritis can progress to the optic nerve head, where artery inflammation can deprive that extremely sensitive delivery system of vital oxygen and nutrients, causing loss of vision in one or both eyes.

Usually, a swiftly-implemented regimen of steroidal medications is prescribed, which eases the intensity of the headaches almost immediately, and usually prevents further complications. On average, Horton Disease patients will stay on at least some sort of dosage for two years. This both treats the condition and helps prevent relapse. During treatment, your doctor will coach you on dietary habits - not for prevention of future episodes, but to inhibit the severity of common steroid-related side effects.

Since the most common complication of Horton Disease is vision loss and blindness, it's crucial you call your doctor at the first sign of any of these symptoms, even if it seems like "just a temporal headache." All cases of this particular disease appear different from one another, and no patient presents exactly the same combination of issues, so self-diagnosing is particularly risky.

If going to the doctor for a "mere headache" is too much of a hassle in your opinion, consider this is condition where avoiding the doctor could prove to be a real headache.

For questions or comments, contact Woodhams Eye Clinic.