Is temporal artery biopsy a worthwhile procedure?

ANZ J Surg. 2005 Jun;75(6):388-91. doi: 10.1111/j.1445-2197.2005.03399.x.


Background: Temporal artery biopsy (TAB) has been accepted as the gold standard for the diagnosis of giant cell arteritis (GCA) or temporal arteritis (TA) even though it is of low sensitivity and specificity. Current medical practice recommends commencing high dose steroids before performing a biopsy, and the continued use of long-term steroids even if biopsy is negative but clinical suspicion of the diagnosis is high. The aim of the present study is to determine if TAB results actually changes the management of patients suspected of GCA or TA.

Methods: Retrospective case note analysis of 70 consecutive patients with TAB over 5 years (1999-2003) from Royal Melbourne Hospital (RMH), Melbourne, Australia.

Results: Histology revealed five (7%) positive biopsies, five (7%) of 'healed arteritis', and 60 (86%) negative biopsies. After excluding 15 patients who were lost to follow up, management of 13 (23.6%) patients was influenced by the biopsy results: seven with negative biopsies had steroids discontinued while six patients with biopsies showing positive and healed arteritis continued on steroids. Management of 42 (76.4%) patients was not altered following biopsy results: 11 with negative biopsy continued on steroids, 19 never started because of low clinical suspicion and 12 ceased steroids some time after biopsy as there was no symptomatic improvement.

Conclusion: With the management of 76.4% of patients unchanged following biopsy, some may argue that these patients underwent unnecessary surgery. However, TAB is a minor procedure that can yield important results for the management of GCA, which if untreated can lead to serious complications. We believe TAB should be performed where there is clinical suspicion of GCA.

MeSH terms

  • Biopsy*
  • Giant Cell Arteritis / pathology*
  • Giant Cell Arteritis / therapy
  • Humans
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Temporal Arteries / pathology*