Purpose: To determine the utility of unilateral versus bilateral temporal artery biopsies in detecting the pathologic changes of giant cell arteritis.
Methods: We performed a retrospective study to determine the utility of unilateral versus bilateral temporal artery biopsies in detecting the pathologic changes of giant cell arteritis. The pathologic reports of consecutive temporal artery biopsy specimens received at the Wilmer Ocular Pathology Laboratory over a 28-year period from 1968 to 1996 were reviewed.
Results: Of 908 specimens examined from 758 patients, 300 specimens were simultaneous bilateral biopsies from 150 patients, 72 specimens were bilateral sequential biopsies from 36 patients, and the remaining 536 specimens were unilateral biopsies from 536 patients. Of the 186 patients who had bilateral simultaneous or nonsimultaneous biopsies, 176 had identical diagnoses on both sides. In four patients, no artery was obtained on one side. In each of the remaining six patients, five of whom had bilateral simultaneous biopsies and one of whom had bilateral sequential biopsies performed 8 days apart, the biopsy specimen from one side was interpreted as showing only arteriosclerotic changes with no evidence of active or healed arteritis, whereas the other specimen was interpreted as showing either probable healed arteritis (three specimens) or possible early arteritis (three cases). In none of the six patients with differing diagnoses between the two sides was one side interpreted as showing definite, active giant cell arteritis. Five of the six patients were subsequently determined to have giant cell arteritis, based on a combination of clinical findings, erythrocyte sedimentation rate, and response to treatment with systemic corticosteroids.
Conclusions: The results of this study indicate that performing a bilateral simultaneous or sequential temporal artery biopsy improves the diagnostic yield in at least 3% of cases of giant cell arteritis, whereas in 97% of cases, the two specimens show the same findings. Thus, in patients in whom only one artery can be biopsied, there is a high probability of obtaining the correct diagnosis. Nevertheless, although the improvement in diagnostic yield of bilateral temporal artery biopsies is low, the consequences of both delayed diagnosis and treatment of giant cell arteritis as well as the use of systemic corticosteroids in patients who do not have giant cell arteritis are of such potential severity that consideration should always be given to performing bilateral temporal artery biopsies in patients suspected of having the disease.