Profile view of a male head with a representation of giant cell arteritis (GCA)

GCA: A Cause of Headaches That's Not Migraine

I recently came across a cause of headache that sounded a bit like migraine in it's description, but with a completely different cause and treatment. For the sake of awareness, I wrote something about it here on Migraine.com. If you or anyone you know are experiencing symptoms like these, whether or not you have migraine, it's a good idea to talk to your doctor as soon as possible.

What is giant cell arteritis?

Unlike a migraine, which is a neurological event, giant cell arteritis (GCA) is an inflammation of the blood vessels around the head, especially around the temples. This can cause a headache that is new and persistent and can occur in multiple parts of the head. There are other possible symptoms such as jaw pain, fatigue, appetite changes, and vision changes such as double vision, blurry vision, and vision loss due to the blood flow to the eyes being blocked.  When I read about this condition, the risk of vision loss made it seem extremely important to differentiate from another type of headache, such as migraine.

Who gets giant cell arteritis?

It is primarily a disease for people over the age of 50, and of those, predominately women. It's associated with another condition of the same demographics called polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR). Not to be confused with fibromyalgia, PMR is an inflammatory disorder causing muscle stiffness and pain, especially in the shoulders, but can also occur in the hips and in other parts of the body.

Why is this important to the migraine community?

Since PMR, like fibromyalgia, can cause pain in various parts of the body, my first reaction is that it must be easy to confuse the two. Since I often encounter many people with both migraine and fibromyalgia in the community, I fear it could be possible for people with GCA/PMR to confuse their own symptoms as a migraine/fibromyalgia combo. About 50% of patients who have GCA have PMR. Though in reverse, only about 5-15% of patients with PMR are diagnosed with GCA. The treatments for giant cell arteritis are very different than migraine and usually involve high doses of corticosteroids followed by a taper to a lower dose, and eventually no medication once the condition remits.

Key takeaways about GCA

Giant cell arteritis can manifest as a headache that comes with vision changes, and it is most often in women over the age of 50. It often occurs with another condition, called polymalgia rheumatica, which causes muscle pain and stiffness.

The more I read, learn, and talk to people, the more I realize that there are so many causes of headache out there. We need to be careful as patients and patient advocates to always encourage ourselves and others to seek a proper diagnosis.

I'm certainly no expert and it was impossible to include all the information on these conditions in this article. If you want to read more about either giant cell arteritis, check out these links:

We'd love to hear from anyone who has experienced wither GCA or PMR. What was the experience like? How does it compare to your experience with migraine. Please comment below!

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Migraine.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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