Aortitis Clinical Presentation

Updated: Dec 18, 2014
  • Author: Masato Okada, MD, FACP, FACR, FAAAAI; Chief Editor: Uchechukwu Sampson, MBBS, MPH, MBA, MSc  more...
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In 1905, at the 12th Annual Meeting of the Japanese Ophthalmology Society, Mikito Takayasu, an ophthalmologist, described a 21-year-old Japanese woman with a peculiar retinal arteriovenous anastomosis. At the same meeting, Onishi described a patient with similar funduscopic findings and absence of radial pulses. Giovan B. Morgagni, an Italian pathologist, reported the first case with signs and symptoms consistent with Takayasu arteritis. In 1948, Shimizu and Sano described a condition characterized by absent pulses, peripapillary arteriovenous anastomosis of the retina, and accelerated carotid sinus reflex, which they called pulseless disease. The name "Takayasu's disease" was applied by Caccamis in 1954, and that eponym held.

Vanoli et al [4] reported a study of 104 Italian patients (91 female, 13 male) with Takayasu arteritis. Median delay in diagnosis was 15.5 months. The main clinical features and laboratory findings were arterial bruit (90%), decreased or absent pulse (85%), blood pressure deference over 10 mm Hg (70%), claudication of extremities (45%), hypertension (40%), asthenia (50%), fever (30%), arthralgia/arthritis (25%), weight loss over 5 kg (20%), headache (20%), erythrocyte sedimentation rate greater than 30 mm/hr (85%), anemia (60%), and leukocytosis (20%). Vascular involvement based on full aortography revealed involvement of the left subclavian (65%), right subclavian (52%), left carotid (44%), abdominal aorta (39%), and right carotid (36%).

Many patients have ischemia of the upper extremities that may manifest as arm claudication or numbness at the time of disease recognition. Claudication of the lower limbs is less common as a presenting symptom.

Hall et al [5] reported arthralgias or myalgias in about one half of patients at the early stage of disease. Symmetric inflammatory polyarthritides resembling rheumatoid arthritis were observed in 5 of 32 patients. Articular symptoms were either transient or continual for several months or longer. Myalgia sometimes dominates the clinical presentation and may mislead clinicians.

Neurologic symptoms are generally caused by decreased cerebral blood flow in the carotid and vertebral arteries. Neurologic manifestations include vertigo, syncope, orthostasis, headaches, convulsions, transient ischemic attacks, stroke, and dementia. Seizures are often attributed to hypertensive encephalopathy. Because of central retinal hypoperfusion, visual impairment is most often bilateral and 48% of patients with vertebral artery involvement and 40% with common carotid artery involvement have visual aberrations.

In a minority of cases (8-18% of pooled series), skin lesions resembling erythema nodosum or pyoderma gangrenosum were found over the legs. Upon biopsy, the lesions frequently showed vasculitis of the small vessels. Erythema nodosum is the predominant dermatologic finding in the United States and Europe, whereas pyoderma gangrenosum is found more frequently in Japan. Raynaud phenomenon has also been reported in 8-14% of patients.

Patients with noninfectious aortitis may present with atypical symptoms that result in diagnostic delay. Spanish researchers suggested "red flags" for the presence of aortitis may include atypical features of polymyalgia rheumatica, unexplained low back or limb pain, and constitutional symptoms in association with elevated levels of acute phase reactants. [6]

Angina pectoris occurs as a result of coronary artery ostial narrowing from aortitis or coronary arteritis and can lead to myocardial infarction, heart failure, or sudden death. Congestive heart failure may be caused by valvular disease. Aortic regurgitation that results from dilation of the aortic root is common.

In cases of documented pulmonary artery involvement, fewer than 25% of patients had related clinical manifestations and only 20% had pulmonary hypertension. Pulmonary symptoms include cough, dyspnea, and hemoptysis.

Abdominal pain, diarrhea, and gastrointestinal hemorrhage may result from mesenteric artery ischemia, but this is rare.

Specific arteries that are inflamed may be tender to the touch (eg, carotid, temporal).



Patients frequently appear chronically ill. Mild to moderate fever may be present. Heart rate and rhythm are unaffected. Reduced blood pressure in one or both arms is common. Laterality of blood pressure (ie, a difference between left and right arms greater than 10 mm Hg) suggests vascular obstruction, and the difference may be greater than 30 mm Hg. Maneuvers can distinguish this pressure drop and/or pulse weakness from scalenus anticus syndrome, in which arm elevation and turning of the head are influential.

Arterial pulse intensity in any of the limbs may be diminished, often asymmetrically. Bruits may be audible over the carotid arteries, abdominal aorta, and sometimes the subclavian and brachial arteries. In a North American study by Kerr et al, bruit was the most common clinical finding (80%), and the most common site was in the carotid vessels (70%). A diastolic decrescendo murmur may signal aortic valve insufficiency. The cardiac apex may be displaced laterally. Rales, edema, liver congestion, elevated venous pressure, and hepatojugular reflux, if present, signify the complication of heart failure.

Hypertension develops in 33-76% of patients, most frequently resulting from narrowing of the renal artery, but narrowing and decreased elasticity of the aorta and branches also can be exacerbating factors. As narrowing or occlusion may lower the pressure in the arms, all limbs must be checked, and measuring central pressure by catheterization may be required to identify hypertension.

Synovitis mimicking rheumatoid arthritis may be noticeable over larger joints, such as the knees or wrists, early in the course of disease.



The pathogenesis of Takayasu arteritis has not been elucidated completely. Genetic influences and immunological mechanisms have received the most attention. The associations of Takayasu arteritis with other autoimmune diseases, such as connective tissue diseases and ulcerative colitis, provide clinical support for the importance of autoimmunity in the pathogenesis.

High titers of anti-endothelial antibodies were detected in patients clinically diagnosed as having Takayasu arteritis.

In a study of 19 patients by Eichorn et al, [7] antiendothelial antibodies were found in 18, and the titers were approximately 20 times higher than normal. Chauhan et al [8] showed that the antibodies are directed against 60-65 kd antigens and may induce expression of endothelial adhesion molecules, cytokine production, and apoptosis.

The only patient who did not have a positive titer for the antibody had inactive disease. However, whether this antibody is pathogenic or merely an epiphenomenon secondary to the vascular injury remains unclear.

The presence of elevated anti-cardiolipin antibody titer also has been reported.

Cell-mediated immunological mechanisms are thought to be of primary importance. Histopathologic examination has shown heavily infiltrating cells in all layers of the aorta, including alpha-beta T cells, gamma-delta T cells, and natural killer (NK) cells.

In comparison to the cells found in a patient with an atherosclerotic aortic aneurysm, the proportion of gamma-delta T cells (ie, cytotoxic cells) was exceedingly high.

Enhanced expression of human leukocyte antigen (HLA) molecules and restricted usage of alpha-beta T-cell receptor genes and gamma-delta T-cell receptor genes in the infiltrating cells suggest the existence of a targeted specific antigen. Gamma-delta T cells can recognize the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I (MIC) chain-related molecules MICA and MICB, whose expression is known to be increased by stress. The MICA gene was found to be located near the HLA-B gene. MICA-1.2 is strongly associated with Takayasu arteritis, even in the absence of HLA-B52, which is highly prevalent in Japanese patients. Expression of heat shock protein-65, a stress-induced protein, also is increased in the tissue. These findings suggest that unknown stress, such as infection, may trigger the autoimmune process involved in patients with Takayasu arteritis.