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Causes of sudden vision loss
By Madhura A. Tamhankar, MD, Health Contributor  -  Tamhankar Archive


Sudden changes in vision in one or both eyes can occur due to a variety of causes, all of which necessitate immediate attention. The visual changes may be accompanied by other signs or symptoms such as headache, imbalance, dizziness, weakness or numbness of body etc. Some times the visual loss in one or both eyes is preceded by certain signs and symptoms that could be occurring for weeks prior. This could be a sign of an underlying disease such as giant cell arteritis, a condition which can cause blindness in both eyes and if left untreated can also cause death

Common causes of sudden vision loss:

Central retinal artery occlusion - occurs when blood supply to the retina is blocked due to occlusion of the main artery, the central retinal artery that supplies oxygen and nutrients to the eye. It happens due to plaque build-up in the retinal artery or from plaques floating into the retinal artery from the carotid artery which is the main artery in the neck that carries blood to the eye and brain

Ischemic optic neuropathy - this causes painless vision loss that is often noticed upon awakening and happens when blood supply to the optic nerve which is the cable of the eye is interrupted. This is the most common reason for vision loss in the elderly from an optic nerve problem.


Giant cell arteritis - a serious and life threatening condition that occurs in older population and can cause stroke of the retina or optic nerve due to sudden occlusion of the blood vessels that supply nutrients to the eye by causing inflammation of the arteries. Often times the sudden vision loss is preceded by weeks of headache, scalp tenderness, jaw pain, weight loss, loss of appetite. If you experience these symptoms please see your health care provider for an evaluation in order to rule out this condition.

Stroke - in many patients the onset of stroke is heralded by sudden weakness, imbalance or numbness of a part of the body. However when the stroke affects the vision centers of the brain only the vision may be affected. When only the vision is affected many patients may not seek treatment immediately. However, it is important to know that sudden visual changes affecting the side vision may result from stroke to the brain and immediate care should be sought so that prompt treatment can be instituted.

Management of sudden vision loss

The appropriate treatment for sudden vision loss depends upon the cause of the condition producing the symptoms. Efforts must first be made to identify and treat the underlying cause of the problem. Treatment options include management of precipitating conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking cessation. In case of giant cell arteritis, long term steroids are needed to treat the condition.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you experience sudden vision loss along with other serious symptoms sudden loss of balance, change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness, severe headache, sudden weakness or numbness on one side of the body, or eye pain.


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Dr. Tamhankar is an Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Attending Surgeon at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center and Philadelphia VA Medical Center Department: Ophthalmology. She has been published many times, and is considered one of the foremost experts in the fields of neuro-ophthalmoogy, ophthalmology, double vision... continue>>
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