Vision loss

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1] Associate Editor(s)-in-Chief: Jyostna Chouturi, M.B.B.S [2]

Synonyms and Keywords: Visual loss


Vision loss is the absence of vision where it existed before, which can happen either acutely (i.e. abruptly) or chronically (i.e. over a long period of time). It may be caused by media opacities, retinal disease, optic nerve disease, visual pathway disorders, or functional disorders, or it may be due to an abnormality in the central nervous system.


In order to gain insight into the pathophysiology of vision loss which will in turn guide treatment decisions, the signs and symptoms should be characterized:

  • Unilateral
  • Bilateral
  • Transient
  • Persistant
  • Sudden
  • Gradual
  • Painless
  • Painful


Media Opacity

Opacities of the clear refractive media of the eye such as the cornea, anterior chamber, lens, and vitreous humor may cause acute visual loss as manifested by blurry vision or reduced visual acuity. While pupillary reflexes may be affected, these conditions generally do not cause a relative afferent pupillary defect.

Causes of media opacity include corneal edema, hyphema, cataract and vitreous hemorrhage.

Retinal Disease

Retinal diseases may cause sudden visual loss. Because the retina is being affected, there is usually a concomitant relative afferent pupillary defect. Conditions that affect or destroy the retina include retinal detachment; macular disease (e.g., macular degeneration); and retinal vascular occlusions, the most important of which is central retinal artery occlusion.

Optic Nerve Disease

Diseases which affect the optic nerve may cause acute visual loss. Signs include an abnormal pupillary reflex, with an afferent pupillary defect when the optic nerve disease is unilateral.

The optic nerve can be affected by many diseases including optic neuritis, retrobulbar neuritis, papillitis, papilledema, glaucoma, ischemic optic neuropathy, and giant cell arteritis.


The eye is very sensitive to restriction of its supply of oxygen. A dimming of vision (a brownout or greyout) accompanied by loss of peripheral perception may result from low blood pressure, shock, g-LOC (an aviation related problem) or simply standing up suddenly, especially if sick or otherwise infirm. Vision usually returns readily once the conditions restricting blood flow are lifted.

Visual Pathway Disorder

Visual pathway disorders are any problems that may impede the visual pathway. Rarely, acute visual loss is caused by homonymous hemianopia and, more rarely, cortical blindness.

Functional Disorder

The term functional disorder is now used where hysterical and malingering were historically used. This shift recognizes the inherent inability of the physician to identify the subjective experience of a patient (and thus whether that patient can truly see or not).


Transient Vision Loss (<24 hours)

  • Amaurosis fugax
  • Vision loss is unilateral and lasts only minutes
  • Vision loss lasts 10-60 minutes
  • Raised intracranial pressure
  • Malignant hypertension
  • Retinal detachment
  • Sudden change in blood pressure
  • Orthostatic hypotension
  • Transient acute increase in thraocular pressure
  • Acute Angle Closure Glaucoma
  • Retro-or peribulbar hemorrhage
  • Vertebrobasilar artery insufficiency
  • Vision loss is bilateral and lasts minutes
  • Vitreous hemorrhage
  • Vitreous detachment

Vision Loss > 24 hours:Sudden, Painless

  • Exposure(Welder's flash)
  • prolonged exposure to intense light/sunlight
  • Ischemic optic neuropathy
  • To prevent permanent loss, rule out giant cell/temporal arteritis
  • Other retinal or central nervous system disease
  • Occipital lobe CVA causing cortical blindness
  • Optic Neuritis
  • Retinal artery/vein occlusion
  • Retinal detachment
  • Vitreous or aqueous hemmorrhage (hyphema)

Vision Loss >24 hours:Gradual, Painless

  • Chronic corneal disease
  • Corneal dystrophy
  • Corneal Ulcer
  • Open angle Glaucoma
  • Optic neuropathy/atrophy
  • Compressive lesion
  • Toxic-metabolic cause
  • Radiation
  • Pseudotumor cerebri
  • Refractive error
  • Retitnitis pigmentosa

Vision Loss >24 hours:Painful

  • Acute Angle Closure Glaucoma
  • Corneal hydrops
  • Keratoconus
  • Corneal abrasion/ulcer
  • Herepes simplex/zoster
  • Ocular onchocerciasis
  • "River blindness"
  • Onchocera volvulus worm
  • Optic neuritis
  • Orbital apex/superior orbital fissure/cavernous sinus syndrome
  • Uveitis

Life-Threatening Causes

Common Causes

Causes by Organ System

Cardiovascular No underlying causes
Chemical/Poisoning No underlying causes
Dental No underlying causes
Dermatologic No underlying causes
Drug Side Effect No underlying causes
Ear Nose Throat No underlying causes
Endocrine No underlying causes
Environmental No underlying causes
Gastroenterologic No underlying causes
Genetic No underlying causes
Hematologic No underlying causes
Iatrogenic No underlying causes
Infectious Disease No underlying causes
Musculoskeletal/Orthopedic No underlying causes
Neurologic No underlying causes
Nutritional/Metabolic No underlying causes
Obstetric/Gynecologic No underlying causes
Oncologic No underlying causes
Ophthalmologic No underlying causes
Overdose/Toxicity No underlying causes
Psychiatric No underlying causes
Pulmonary No underlying causes
Renal/Electrolyte No underlying causes
Rheumatology/Immunology/Allergy No underlying causes
Sexual No underlying causes
Trauma No underlying causes
Urologic No underlying causes
Miscellaneous No underlying causes

Causes in Alphabetical Order

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History and Symptoms


  • Age
  • Onset:
  • Rate of loss
  • Any specific trauma
  • Headaches
  • Medication
  • Specific medical history
  • Alcohol, drug and/or tabacco use

Physical Examination


The examination should focus on:

  • Acuity
  • Blood pressure
  • Color vision
  • Cranial exam
  • cranial nerve innervation
  • Fundus
  • Intraocular pressure
  • Ocular media opacity
  • Optic disc exam

Laboratory Findings

  • ESR
  • Fasting blood glucose
  • HgBa1c
  • PPD
  • RPR
  • ACE level
  • Vitamin B12
  • Folate

MRI and CT

  • CT/MRI of head and chest

Evaluation of Monocular Transient Visual Loss

Abbreviations: TVL, transient visual loss.

Monocular TVL
Does Monocular TVL Occur Only in Certain Positions of Gaze (Gaze-Evoked TVL)?
Orbital MRI
Structural lesion of orbit
No structural lesion of orbit
Duration of TVL?
Causes of Transient Visual Loss Based on the Duration[1]
TVL lasts seconds TVL lasts minutes TVL lasts hours
  • Papilledema
  • Optic neuropathy
  • Congenital disc anomaly
  • Thromboembolism (rare)
  • Migraine
  • Giant cell arteritis
  • Thromboembolism
  • Hypercoagulable state
  • Antiphospholipid antibody syndrome
  • Spontaneous hyphema
  • Intermittent angle closure glaucoma
  • Morning glory syndrome
  • Peripapillary staphyloma
  • Carotid artery dissection
  • Venous stasis retinopathy
  • Post-scleral buckle
  • Spontaneous hyphema
  • Thromboembolism
  • Carotid stenosis
  • Migraine


Medical Therapy

  • Systemic Steroids can be prescribed for the following:
  • Temporal arteritis
  • Optic neuritis
  • Pituitary apoplexy
  • Herpes zoster
  • Nonarteritic ischemic optic neuropathy patients
  • Asprin
  • Cavernous sinus thrombosis
  • Antibiotics
  • Anticoagulation
  • Corneal hydrops
  • Cycloplegic,hypertonic NaCl ointment


Corneal Hydrops

Corneal transplant

Retinal Detachment

Surgical repair


Surgical removal

Temporal Arteritis

Temporal biopsy and steroids.

Related Chapters


  1. Clinical Pathways in Neuro-ophthalmology: An Evidence-based Approach. ISBN 978-1588901361.

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