Optic neuritis occurs when the optic nerve, the pathway that transmits visual information to the brain, becomes inflamed and the myelin sheath that surrounds the nerve is destroyed (a process known as demyelination). It typically occurs in one eye at a time (70%), and the resulting vision loss is rapid and progressive, but only temporary. Thirty percent of patients experience occurrence in both eyes. Optic neuritis tends to afflict young adults with an average age in their 30s. Seventy-five percent of patients with optic neuritis are women.
Nerve damage that occurs in the section of the optic nerve located behind the eyeball, is called retrobulbar neuritis, and is most often associated with multiple sclerosis. Optic nerve inflammation and edema (swelling) caused by intracranial pressure at the place where the nerve enters the eyeball is termed papillitis.
Causes and symptoms
Symptoms of optic neuritis include one or more of the following:
- blurred or dimmed vision
- blind spots, particularly with central vision
- pain with eye movement
- sudden color blindness
- impaired night vision
- impaired contrast sensitivity
Optic neuritis is most commonly associated with multiple sclerosis (MS). Other causes include viral or fungal infections, encephalomyelitis, autoimmune diseases, or pressure on the nerve from tumors or vascular diseases (i.e., temporal arteritis). Some toxins, such as methanol and lead, can also damage the optic nerve, as can long-term abuse of alcohol and tobacco. Patients with non-MS related optic neuritis are usually immunocompromised in some way.
An ophthalmologist, a physician trained in diseases of the eye, will typically make a diagnosis of optic neuritis. A complete visual exam, including a visual acuity test, color vision test, and examination of the retina and optic disc with an ophthalmoscope, will be performed. Clinical signs such as impaired pupil response may be apparent during an eye exam, but in some cases the eye may appear normal. A medical history will also be performed to determine if exposure to toxins such as lead may have caused the optic neuritis.
Treatment of optic neuritis depends on the underlying cause of the condition. Vision loss resulting from a viral condition usually resolves itself once the virus is treated, and optic neuritis resulting from toxin damage may improve once the source of the toxin is removed.
A course of intravenous corticosteroids (steroids) followed by oral steroids has been found to be helpful in restoring vision quickly to patients with MS-related episodes of optic neuritis, but its efficacy in preventing relapse is debatable. The Optic Neuritis Treatment Trial (ONTT) has shown that IV steroids may be effective in reducing the onset of MS for up to two years, but further studies are necessary. Oral prednisone has been found to increase the likelihood of recurrent episodes of optic neuritis, and is not recommended for treating the disorder.
The vision loss associated with optic neuritis is usually temporary. Spontaneous remission occurs in two to eight weeks. Sixty-five to eighty percent of patients can expect 20/30 or better vision after recovery. Long-term prognosis depends on the underlying cause of the condition. If a viral infection has triggered the episode, it frequently resolves itself with no after effects. If optic neuritis is associated with multiple sclerosis, future episodes are not uncommon. Thirty-three percent of optic neuritis cases recur within five years. Each recurrence results in less recovery and worsening vision. There is a strong association between optic neuritis
Regular annual eye exams are critical to maintaining healthy vision. Early treatment of vision problems can prevent permanent optic nerve damage (atrophy).
Leitman, Mark. Manual for Eye Examination and Diagnosis, 5th ed. Boston: Blackwell Science, 2001.
Cohen, Joyce Render, et al. "Living with Low Vision." Inside MS 1(2001):46.
Prevent Blindness America. 500 East Remington Road, Schaumburg, IL 60173. (800) 331-2020. <http://www.prevent-blindness.org>.
Atrophy—Cell wasting or death.
Multiple sclerosis—An autoimmune disease of the central nervous system characterized by damage to the myelin sheath that covers nerves.
Temporal arteritis—Also known as giant cell arteritis. Inflammation of the large arteries located in the temples which is marked by the presence of giant cells and symptoms of headache and facial pain.
Visual acuity test—An eye examination that determines sharpness of vision, typically performed by identifying objects and/or letters on an eye chart.