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About Vasculitis

Vasculitis can affect the central or peripheral nervous system. In patients with vasculitis the blood vessels become inflamed, inflammatory cells accumulate in and around the blood vessels, and decrease or block the supply of oxygenated blood going to the brain, spinal cord, or peripheral nerves. As the blood flow is blocked, the tissues they supply can die. Sometimes, the weakened blood vessels rupture, leading to bleeding.

Nervous system vasculitis can develop as part of an infection, a generalized autoimmune disease such as lupus, Sjögren's syndrome, or with a systemic vasculitis that affects other parts of the body (Wegener's granulomatosis, polyarteritis nodosa); in these cases it is called secondary vasculitis. If vasculitis of the brain or spinal cord develops when no other condition is present, it is called primary central nervous system vasculitis or primary angiitis of the central nervous system (PACNS).

Vasculitis of the central nervous system causes poor cognition, headache, stroke, and seizures. Vaculitis of the peripheral nervous system causes pain in the arms and legs, numbness, and asymmetrical weakness. People with vasculitis may also have fever, lose weight, and are easily fatigued.

Vasculitis and the underlying disorders that cause it can be difficult to diagnose. At NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital our neurologists are expert at distinguishing between a range of inflammatory, infectious, and immune-related neurological disorders. We take an aggressive approach to diagnosis, as early diagnosis is very important in managing these disorders and maintaining patients' quality of life.

Diagnosis of Vasculitis

To diagnose vasculitis doctors here may use tests including:

  • Blood tests
  • Imaging scans such as CT, MRI, and brain angiogram
  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap)
  • A biopsy of brain tissue, muscle, nerve, or the temporal artery

Medical Treatment for Vasculitis

Doctors treat vasculitis with corticosteroids, which reduces inflammation by suppressing the immune system and, in some cases, they use chemotherapeutic agents such as cyclophosphamide that also suppress the immune system.

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