Headaches: When aspirin won't do

woman with headacheAlthough most headaches are nothing more than an annoyance, sometimes they are a symptom of a serious condition called temporal arteritis. Treatment for this condition is often successful; however, if left untreated, temporal arteritis can lead to blindness or stroke.

What is temporal arteritis?
Temporal arteritis, which is caused by an immune-system disorder, affects anywhere from one out of every 2,000 to one out of every 10,000 people over age 50. In addition to severe headaches, temporal arteritis triggers flu-like symptoms. Its most visible sign is an enlargement of the artery that runs across the forehead. The artery may become thick and tender. This indicates an inflamed blood vessel that, if blocked, can prevent blood from reaching the eyes, causing permanent vision loss.
About one in two people with temporal arteritis also has polymyalgia rheumatica, a condition that causes fever, fatigue and stiffness around the neck and shoulders.

Testing and treatment
To test for the condition, a segment of the artery is removed and examined. The procedure (called a biopsy) takes less than 30 minutes.
Steroids to reduce inflammation, aspirin and immune system-suppressing drugs are common medications used in treatment. It takes patients up to a year to recover from temporal arteritis; however, recurrence is possible.

Because there is no way to prevent temporal arteritis, staying in tune with your body and alerting your health care provider to any unusual symptoms is the best way to get necessary treatment early.

Know the signs
If you have any of the below symptoms, contact your health care provider:

  • fever of unknown origin
  • headache on one side of the head
  • jaw pain
  • vision difficulties
  • weakness, excessive tiredness
  • general ill feeling
  • weight loss
  • excessive sweating
  • muscle aches
  • mouth sores
  • joint pain