Optic neuritis is inflammation of the optic nerve. Symptoms are usually unilateral, with eye pain and partial or complete vision loss. Diagnosis is primarily clinical. Treatment is directed at the underlying condition; most cases resolve spontaneously.
Optic neuritis is most common among adults 20 to 40 yr. Most cases result from demyelinating disease, particularly multiple sclerosis (see Multiple Sclerosis (MS)), in which case there may be recurrences. Optic neuritis is often the presenting manifestation of multiple sclerosis. Other causes include the following:
Rare causes include diabetes, pernicious anemia, systemic autoimmune diseases, Graves' ophthalmopathy, bee stings, and trauma. Often, the cause remains obscure despite thorough evaluation.
Symptoms and Signs
The main symptom is vision loss, frequently maximal within 1 or 2 days and varying from a small central or paracentral scotoma to complete blindness. Most patients have mild eye pain, which often feels worse with eye movement.
If the optic disk is swollen, the condition is called papillitis. If the optic disk appears normal, the condition is called retrobulbar neuritis. The most characteristic findings include reduced visual acuity, a visual field deficit, and disturbed color vision (often out of proportion to loss of visual acuity). An afferent pupillary defect is usually detectable if the contralateral eye is unaffected or involved to a lesser degree. Testing of color vision is a useful adjunct. In about two thirds of patients, inflammation is entirely retrobulbar, causing no visible changes in the optic fundus. In the rest, disk hyperemia, edema in or around the disk, vessel engorgement, or a combination is present. A few exudates and hemorrhages may be present near or on the optic disk.
Optic neuritis is suspected in patients with characteristic pain and vision loss. Neuroimaging, preferably with gadolinium-enhanced MRI, is usually done and may show an enlarged, enhancing optic nerve. MRI may also help diagnose multiple sclerosis. Fluid attenuating inversion recovery (FLAIR) MRI sequences may show typical demyelinating lesions in a periventricular location if optic neuritis is related to demyelination.
Prognosis depends on the underlying condition. Most episodes resolve spontaneously, with return of vision in 2 to 3 mo. Most patients with a typical history of optic neuritis and no underlying systemic disease, such as a connective tissue disease, recover vision, but > 25% have a recurrence in the same eye or in the other eye. MRI is used to determine future risk of demyelinating disease.
Corticosteroids are an option, especially if multiple sclerosis is suspected. Treatment with methylprednisolone (500 mg to 1000 mg IV once/day) for 3 days followed by prednisone (1 mg/kg po once/day) for 11 days may speed recovery, but ultimate vision results are no different from those with observation alone. IV corticosteroids have been reported to delay onset of multiple sclerosis for at least 2 yr. Treatment with oral prednisone alone does not improve vision outcome and may increase the rate of recurrent episodes. Low-vision aids (eg, magnifiers, large-print devices, talking watches) may be helpful.
Last full review/revision September 2012 by James Garrity, MD
Content last modified October 2013