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Optic Atrophy: Symptoms and Causes

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Optic Atrophy: Symptoms and Causes

‘Atrophy’ means wasting away, especially due to the degeneration of cells. Optic nerve atrophy is an eye condition characterized by damage to the optic nerve.

The optic nerve extends at the back of each eye, which connects the retina to the brain. It holds a very vital role in the vision formation process. The visual stimuli we receive from the external environment travel towards the optic nerve, which transmits them to the brain. These stimuli are processed in the occipital lobe of the brain and are converted into images that we can understand, see and experience. 

As the optic nerve has a key function in image formation, its deterioration may lead to a loss of several visual capacities. That includes central vision, peripheral vision, and color vision. The type of vision loss and the extent of its severity both depend on where the damage occurs in the optic nerve. Optic Atrophy may affect one or both eyes. Read here to learn more about optic nerve damage and accompanying eye diseases.

In a research study published by National Institute of Health, Optic Atrophy was identified as one of the five main causes of blindness. Given the amount of visual damage that can be caused by optic nerve atrophy, we must look into its causes and ways to prevent the damage.

Causes of Optic Nerve Atrophy?

Optic atrophy is a visual complication that may occur as a result of certain eye diseases. Let’s take a brief look at the most common causes of optic nerve atrophy:

  • Glaucoma:

    Glaucoma is a genetic problem, which causes an abnormally high ocular pressure that in turn leads to a gradual deterioration of the optic nerve. If it goes undiagnosed, rapid decay can lead to permanent vision loss.

  • Anterior ischemic optic neuropathy (AION):

    AION presents itself in the form of sudden vision loss. It occurs due to the obstruction of blood flow to the frontal portion of the optic nerve, also known as the optic nerve head.

  • Brain Tumor:

    A brain tumor can cause optic nerve damage by exerting pressure on either the optic nerve itself or certain regions of the brain, such as the occipital lobe. It may result in blurred vision and double vision.

  • Optic Neuritis:

    Sometimes inflammation can occur in the optic nerve due to an infection or autoimmune diseases such as Lupus, or Multiple Sclerosis. This damage to the optic nerve due to inflammation is termed Optic Neuritis. Typically, it is accompanied by pain in eyeball movement as well as temporary vision loss in one eye.

  • Optic Nerve Hypoplasia (ONH):

    Optic nerve hypoplasia (ONH) is a congenital disease in which the optic nerve is considerably underdeveloped and has much fewer nerve fibers out of the 1.2 million average nerve fibers in the optic nerve of a healthy person. Most of the time, children with ONH have diminished vision in both eyes.

Common Symptoms of Optic Nerve Atrophy

The onset of Optic Nerve Atrophy can occur at any age from birth through childhood. This varies in individuals because, as explained earlier, optic damage can happen as a result of either one of several causes, including eye diseases, brain tumors, or a lack of oxygen supply. 

Blurred Vision caused by Optic Atrophy

However, once the deterioration of optic nerve cells begins, it reveals itself in the form of visual difficulties, such as:

  • Blurred Vision

  • Weak Peripheral Vision:
    A loss of ability to look out of the corner of one’s eye. Poor peripheral vision also adversely affects your ability to judge movement around you.

  • Poor Color Vision:
    Most people with deteriorating color vision can still see all the colors, but they find it difficult to tell two shades apart from each other.

  • Reduced Visual Acuity:
    A healthy eye with 6 by 6 vision sees a sharp and crisp image quality of their environment, however, under the effect of optic nerve damage, these images appear cloudy, with blurred outlines.

Also, a dilated eye examination with an ophthalmoscope shows that the eye with optic nerve atrophy appears pale, instead of the typically pinkish hue of the optic nerve.

Optic Nerve Atrophy: Eye Exam and Diagnosis

Ophthalmologists usually conduct a detailed eye exam If they suspect that you could have optic atrophy. An instrument, an ophthalmoscope, is used to examine the optic disc, which is the point at which the optic nerve connects at the back of the eye. In people with optic nerve damage, this disc appears unusually pale in color.

The doctor may also suggest you take other tests to assess the type of visual problems and their severity. These include color vision and peripheral vision, both of which deteriorate rapidly under the effect of optic nerve atrophy. Other diseases such as glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, brain tumor, and others are also investigated to identify the cause of optic nerve damage onset.  

It is best to get an eye exam done by a certified ophthalmologist, after every 6 /12 months, especially if you experience pain/ discomfort in the eyes or a diminishing vision.

Optic Nerve Atrophy Treatments

Whether or not optic nerve atrophy can be treated depends upon what is causing it. In most cases, optic nerve damage can be slowed down in its tracks by the medical intervention of the underlying cause. While in some instances, you can also expect to regain your lost vision.

If an individual gets an early diagnosis for glaucoma and receives immediate treatment for it then optic nerve damage can be slowed down significantly. If the cause is optic neuritis, the vision loss usually occurs in either eye and goes away once the inflammation is treated.

Similarly, if a brain tumor is identified at an early stage, it can be treated in time to relieve the buildup of cerebrospinal fluid and compression due to the tumor. It thus prevents further damage to the optic nerve.   

Successful Tech Intervention for Optic Atrophy

Low vision problems can make the simplest routine tasks feel like a burden and drastically bring down your quality of life. But fortunately, medical technology has focused on the needs of the low vision community, which paved the way for the invention of helpful low vision aids.

Low vision aids for Optic Atrophy

Starting from handheld magnifiers and bioptic telescopes, the low vision aids have undergone quite an upgrade through the years. One of the most technologically advanced low vision aids includes wearable electronic glasses, such as IrisVision Inspire. Although this device does not promise to cure Optic Atrophy, it certainly offers great value for restoring vision when used. 

Devices such as IrisVision are built to facilitate its users so they can attain the same level of visual acuity, color vision and quality as an average person. The headset covers for the visual difficulties caused by Nerve Atrophy, such as blurred vision, reduced vision, reduced peripheral vision etc. 

To date, ophthalmologists and medical professionals continue researching better methods and treatments for a complete cure of vision loss caused due to Optic Atrophy. However, for prevention of optic nerve atrophy, you must monitor your eye health on a regular basis and make efforts to maintain good health.