Optic nerve atrophy — also known as optic neuropathy — involves damage to the optic nerve. The resulting vision problems include reduced central vision, narrowing peripheral vision and diminished color vision. Visual impairment, which varies in severity, can affect one or both eyes.
Since visual impairment related to optic nerve atrophy is permanent, it's important to see an optometrist or ophthalmologist if you are experiencing eye symptoms or changes in your vision. Currently, there is no treatment available to reverse the condition. However, eye care professionals work to prevent further damage to the optic nerve by identifying and treating any underlying injury or disease that may be the cause.
Causes and Symptoms of Optic Nerve Atrophy
Optic nerve atrophy generally affects individuals of all ages. Depending on how old you are, causes include poor blood flow, trauma, infection, stroke, brain tumor and exposure to certain toxins. Although inflammation is a common cause, heredity, multiple sclerosis (MS), untreated glaucoma and degenerative disorders can also cause optic nerve atrophy. In many cases, the cause remains unknown.
Visual symptoms due to MS, which is a demyelinating disease, are caused by inflammation of the optic nerve or lesions that develop along nerve pathways in the central nervous system that play a role in visual processing. Glaucoma, like optic nerve atrophy, causes changes in the optic disc — the area where the optic nerve enters the retina.
Optic nerve atrophy leads to dim vision and a reduced field of vision. Vision sometimes blurs, colors appear faded, visual acuity diminishes, and the pupils fail to react to light. With some individuals, one eye looks less bright than the other.
Children with optic nerve atrophy often suffer nystagmus in addition to these other symptoms. Nystagmus is characterized by rapid, uncontrolled eye movements that can cause reduced vision and may affect a child's balance and coordination. Along with eye and vision problems, some children with optic nerve atrophy suffer developmental delays, motor problems and seizures.
Since optic nerve atrophy can lead to total blindness for some people, it's critical to report symptoms such as blurred vision and difficulty seeing fine details to your eye care professional. Upon examination of your eyes, an optometrist or ophthalmologist will check the optic nerve, which is located at the back of the eye, for damage or signs of atrophy.
The optic nerve — which is normally pink in color — may look pale or atrophied. A loss of nerve fibers makes the optic nerve look whitish or grayish. These changes in appearance happen because the optic nerve can't repair the damage that occurs.
An eye doctor may perform a tonometry test to measure the fluid pressure inside your eye. Eye care professionals use this method to detect glaucoma, which can cause optic nerve atrophy due to increased intraocular pressure.
Poor pupil constriction and optic disc abnormalities or changes are other symptoms of optic nerve atrophy. How fast or to what degree the optic nerve atrophies varies among individuals depending on the cause.
The diagnosis of optic nerve atrophy may also include MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) of the brain to detect plaques associated with multiple sclerosis or a tumor that may be putting pressure on the optic nerve. A brain tumor that develops near the eye or presses on the optic nerve can cause slow, progressive vision loss.
Visual evoked potentials, which measure electrical activity in the brain, are another diagnostic tool healthcare practitioners use to measure an individual's response to visual stimuli. Eye doctors use the test to help identify optic nerve problems.
If you suspect that you have a form of optic nerve atrophy and want to prevent further damage to your vision, contact the eye care professionals at The Eye Center for a comprehensive eye examination and testing.