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What is Ocular Neuritis?

By Synthia L. Rose
Updated May 17, 2024
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Ocular neuritis is an eye condition characterized by swelling and pain in the nerves that feed visual data to the brain and allow eye movement. When the optic nerve, a network of nerves behind the eyeball which relays visual cues between the retina and he brain, becomes inflamed, this condition is called optic neuritis or retrobulbar neuritis. It can result in fleeting vision loss lasting from a month to four months or permanent loss. The inflammation of other cranial nerves that cause the eye to move up and down or side to side is typically called ocular motor paralysis. Autoimmune diseases, lead poisoning and proliferation of harmful bacteria in the eye can cause both of these forms of ocular neuritis.

Children, specifically babies and toddlers whose eyes are still developing, can suffer ocular neuritis after being exposed to high lead levels in paint on toys or on walls and windowsills. Lead exposure via tap water in old homes with lead pipes can also trigger neuritis of the eye for young children. Plumbers who constantly work with old lead pipes can also be affected. In most advanced countries, lead pipes in new homes are outlawed.

Neuritis related to lead exposure can often be hard to diagnose, with some doctors mistaking it for a brain tumor or basal meningitis. Diagnosis is often made easier when other conditions completely unrelated to the eye occur concurrently, such as the presence of blue gums in the mouth — a telltale color change caused by lead. In addition to gum changes, health journals have documented babies with neuritis who concurrent conditions of foot drop, colic and wrist drop.

For adults, diseases and bacterial or viral infections are the main causes of ocular neuritis. Studies show that most patients diagnosed at age 30 or older have contracted neuritis through syphilis and meningitis. Multiple sclerosis is another cause; paralysis of the eye through ocular neuritis is often seen as one of the first signs of the onset of multiple sclerosis. Allergic reactions to medication or chemicals in the environment can cause neuritis in some sensitive individuals. Sometimes the cause of the neuritis is unknown: blurriness, blind spots, and pain during eye movement simply emerge with no detectable cause.

Medical research reveals that women are more likely than men to be afflicted by ocular neuritis. Sometimes the nerves self-repair, ending the neuritis. At other times, doctors can ease the pain of the eye inflammation with corticosteroids. In some cases, such as with multiple sclerosis, there is no cure for ocular neuritis.

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