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Temporal Arteritis and Headaches

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Updated January 28, 2010

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Temporal arteritis and headaches go together quite commonly, but the two conditions are also very different. While headache can be a symptom of temporal arteritis, being able to distinguish between the two is very important in finding the most appropriate and effective treatments.

What is Temporal Arteritis?

Temporal arteritis is a condition caused when the large blood vessels that supply the head become inflamed. The most commonly affected vessel is the superficial temporal artery, which is the source of the pulse you can sometimes feel along your temples.

The cause of temporal arteritis is not entirely known, but it is thought to be due to an abnormal immune response in the body. According to some sources, high doses of antibiotics and severe infections may be linked to the development of temporal arteritis.

Temporal arteritis typically affects adults over age 50, with the average age being 70 or so. It is also 4 to 6 times more likely to affect women than men.

Symptoms of Temporal Arteritis

Common symptoms of temporal arteritis include fever, a general ill feeling, jaw pain, loss of appetite, and muscle aches. Throbbing headaches and scalp pain are also common -- in fact, over 60 percent of those with temporal arteritis will develop headache.

In many cases a person may also experience visual difficulties, such as blurred or double vision. Complete vision loss or blindness may also occur at times.

Since headache is the main temporal arteritis symptom for which people seek treatment, additional clues to distinguish between a “normal” headache and temporal arteritis would be helpful. The American College of Rheumatology has developed criteria to help determine if a diagnosis of temporal arteritis should be considered.

In addition to symptoms listed above, if any of the following are true, it may be possible that temporal arteritis is the cause of your headache:

  • Symptoms starting after the age of 50

  • A “new” headache or headache symptoms that differ from what your “normal headache” feels like

  • Tenderness over the temporal artery or a weakened pulse in the temporal artery

What Should You Do?

As with all headaches, you should discuss your symptoms with your health care provider to ensure that you receive the most appropriate treatment. You can use the mnemonic "SNOOP" to remember headache warning signs that should prompt immediate contact with your health care provider.

Your doctor may decide to order a blood test to measure your elevated erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), and could possibly schedule you for a temporal artery biopsy to confirm the diagnosis.

If you have temporal arteritis, your doctor may prescribe a steroid, such as prednisone, to prevent the inflammation.

Sources:

Epperly, Ted, et al. "Polymyalgia rheumatica and temporal arteritis." American Family Physician. August 15, 2000.

Lue, Allen, M.D. "Temporal Arteritis."Baylor College of Medicine/Bobby R. Alford Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery Grand Rounds. August 9, 2001.

"Temporal Arteritis."From the U.S. Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health website. Accessed January 24, 2010.

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