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What Is Optic Nerve Atrophy?

Optic nerve atrophy can be caused by multiple sclerosis.
If a person's optic nerve, the nerve that transmits the signals of the eye to the brain, becomes damaged a person's vision may become impaired.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 16 October 2014
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Optic nerve atrophy, also known as optic neuropathy, is disease in the optic nerve leading to vision impairments for a patient. These impairments are irreversible and can range from some dimming of the visual field to total blindness. A number of conditions can damage the optic nerve and it is possible to arrest the damage with treatment, as well as to prevent atrophy by catching diseases early so they can be managed before they start causing problems. Regular eye examinations can help patients catch health risks in their beginning stages.

In optic nerve atrophy, part or all of the optic nerve experiences damage as a result of an underlying disease process. Patients can notice symptoms like a dim visual field, less bright colors, and decreased sensitivity to light. It can be difficult to see in situations with low light because the pupil will not open wide enough. Eventually, the vision can start to appear fogged, and the patient may experience blindness in one or both eyes.

Causes of optic nerve atrophy include tumors pressing on the optic nerve, strokes, neurological diseases like multiple sclerosis, and poor blood flow. If the nerve is not adequately supplied with blood, individual cells can start to die, creating degraded vision. Glaucoma is also linked with this condition. An ophthalmologist will be able to detect problems with the optic nerve on an eye examination and can determine the extent of the damage and the likely cause.

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Treating or controlling the underlying cause is very important. For something like a tumor, it may be possible to completely cure the underlying cause, stopping the damage in its tracks and allowing the patient's vision to stabilize. With progressive diseases, the focus is on management to slow the spread of the disease and control symptoms. Patients with multiple sclerosis, for instance, may be able to take medications to reduce nerve damage and maintain functionality in the brain and spinal cord.

A person with optic nerve atrophy can experience varying degrees of impairment. It is important to receive regular eye examinations to check for signs of ophthalmological conditions, and to follow up with treatment for underlying diseases known to cause eye problems, like diabetes, to make sure the eyes receive adequate care. People who notice vision changes should see a doctor as soon as possible for evaluation, as eye disease like optic nerve atrophy can be irreversible, and will be easier to treat in the early stages.

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