Retinitis Pigmentosa, RP, is an eye condition first identified and named in 1857 by a doctor named Dr. Donders.
In fact, the name doesn’t represent a single entity. It refers collectively to a whole group of inherited eye diseases caused by gene mutations, which affect the central most region of the eye, the retina.
Vision loss due to Retinitis Pigmentosa is a gradual but progressive journey spanned over many years. RP blindness is rare. Most people with this eye disease are left with some useful vision even into old age.
Usually, loss of night vision is recognized as the very first sign of RP, becoming apparent during childhood. This can make navigating in low light difficult. Later, these blind spots start developing in peripheral (side) vision, which eventually merge together to produce tunnel vision.
It takes years or even decades until RP can affect your central vision, which is what you need for detailed tasks, such as reading, writing, driving and even for face recognition. Many people suffering from RP can lead to the level of legal blindness in their adulthood.
Types of Retinitis Pigmentosa
As stated earlier, RP represents a diverse group of genetic eye diseases, which can be inherited from one or both of the parents.
So, here are some major examples of RP related eye problems.
- Usher syndrome
- Leber’s congenital amaurosis (LCA)
i) Usher Syndrome
A rare inherited disease, Usher syndrome was first described by a British eye surgeon in 1914, thus named after him. It can cause deafness in addition to gradual vision loss in infants, sometimes also affecting the balance. Scientists have been able to identify 3 types of Usher syndrome (1, 2 and 3). Vision loss due to it starts developing in childhood or adolescence.
ii) Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis (LCA)
An inherited eye disease, Leber Congenital Amaurosis (LCA) is capable of inflicting retinal degeneration, often characterized by severe loss of vision at birth. It can also result in a range of eye-related abnormalities. Some of them include deep-set eyes, roving eye movements and bright light sensitivity. Abnormalities in central nervous system have also been associated with LCA.
iii) Cone-rod Dystrophy (CDR)
As the name suggests, CDR basically represents a group of inherited eye disorders, which pertain to the damage done to the rods and cones, the light sensitive cells of the retina. The gradual deterioration caused by CDR leads to vision loss over a period of time.
Similarly, different names are used to refer to this eye disease. Some common of them include pigmentary retinopathy, rod-cone dystrophy, RP and tapetorential degeneration.
Retinitis Pigmentosa Symptoms
There are many symptoms of Retinitis Pigmentosa. Some major of them include:
Night Blindness: Your inability to see anything in dark refers to night blindness, though you may still be enjoying a perfectly normal vision during the day. You start taking longer in adjusting to darkness as night blindness starts creeping into your life. For instance, driving at dusk and dawn becomes more challenging, just like seeing a movie in a theater or a dimly light room.
Tunnel Vision: Tunnel vision refers to a gradual narrowing down of your peripheral or side vision, so much so that your field of vision becomes restricted to straight-ahead vision only.
Loss of Central Vision: Losing central vision is also considered as one of the symptoms of retinitis pigmentosa, which makes detail-oriented tasks like reading, writing, threading a needle or recognizing faces extremely difficult for you.
Problematic Color Vision: For some people, color vision can also become a problematic proposition after suffering from retinitis pigmentosa.
This factsheet by GARD (Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center) covers retinitis pigmentosa symptoms in great detail.
Retinitis Pigmentosa Treatment Options
Unfortunately, retinitis pigmentosa cure is still not available, though various retinitis pigmentosa treatment options exist. Let’s have a look at some treatments that can help you slow down your vision loss.
i) Retinitis Pigmentosa Gene Therapy
Retinitis pigmentosa gene therapy is deemed viable, but only after the identification of the faulty gene causing RP. It is aimed at replacing the faulty gene present in the affected retinal cells, relying on a harmless virus to carry the new genetic material after being directly injected into the affected region of the retina. The issue, however, remains finding the problematic gene(s), which we still need to discover for many cases of RP.
ii) RP Stem Cell Treatment
Human body is comprised of different types of cells, some of them designated for highly specialized task; for example, the retinal cells. These are highly specialized and that’s why replacing them is no ordinary feat for human body. Now, one of the specialties of stems cells is to replicate and grow as the cells of almost any type. Stem cell therapy for retinitis pigmentosa holds the potential of replacing the damaged areas of an affected retina and retinitis pigmentosa stem cell research plays the key role in finding a feasible mechanism of doing so.
iii) Growth Factors
Growth factors involve chemicals capable of supporting cell growth and repair. Researchers around the world are exploring the potential of using growth factors to treat retinal diseases, hoping to successfully repair or protect the retinal cells from further damage.
iv) Retinal Implants
Experts are also resorting to retinal implants (also referred as “bionic eyes”) to help people whose vision is totally lost due to RP. In fact, such implants are already available to RP blindness victims in U.S and Europe. You can get vision restoration of a very basic level with these bionic eyes, mostly confined to the identification of basic shapes and movements. As of now, you cannot get reading assistance with these.
v) Vision Loss Management and Low Vision Aids
One of the biggest issues when dealing with vision loss, irrespective of the reason behind it, is that it not only deprives you of your ability to see things, but it can also affect your quality of life. Your freedom of movement is the ultimate victim of anything leading you to vision loss. So, minimizing the negative impacts of vision loss on these aspects of your life should be the top priority of your efforts to manage vision loss.
I find it quite ironic that most people fail to realize the importance of getting their eye exam on a regular basis. All types of degenerative retinal eye diseases share one thing in common, the sooner they are detected, the higher are the chances to prevent or slow down the damage. Improving your way of life and following optimal eye health tips also ensure that a healthy vision lasts you a lifetime.
However, if you get to the point where RP blindness start to affect your freedom of movement, resorting to low vision aids can be one of the best decisions of managing your vision loss.
Though a low vision aid like IrisVision might not be able to restore your already damaged retinal cells, but it can sure restore your freedom of movement and confidence by helping you make the most of your leftover vision, just like these people already using IrisVision.