Diplopia: A Merck Manual of Patient Symptoms podcast
Diplopia is the perception of 2 images of a single object. Diplopia may be monocular or binocular. Monocular diplopia is present when only one eye is open. Binocular diplopia disappears when either eye is closed.
Monocular diplopia can occur when something distorts light transmission through the eye to the retina. There may be > 2 images. One of the images is of normal quality (eg, brightness, contrast, clarity); the rest are of inferior quality. The most common causes of monocular diplopia are
Other causes include corneal scarring and dislocated lens. Complaints also may represent malingering.
Binocular diplopia suggests disconjugate alignment of the eyes. There are only 2 images, and they are of equal quality. There are many possible causes of binocular diplopia (see Table 6: Some Causes of Binocular Diplopia). The most common are
Most commonly, the eyes are misaligned because of a disorder affecting the cranial nerves innervating the extraocular muscles (3rd, 4th, or 6th cranial nerves). These palsies may be isolated and idiopathic or the result of various disorders involving the cranial nerve nuclei or the infranuclear nerve or nerves. Other causes involve mechanical interference with ocular motion or a generalized disorder of neuromuscular transmission.
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History of present illness should determine whether diplopia involves one or both eyes, whether diplopia is intermittent or constant, and whether the images are separated vertically, horizontally, or both. Any associated pain is noted, as well as whether it occurs with or without eye movement.
Review of systems should seek symptoms of other cranial nerve dysfunction, such as vision abnormalities (2nd cranial nerve); numbness of forehead and cheek (5th cranial nerve); facial weakness (7th cranial nerve); dizziness, hearing loss, or gait difficulties (8th cranial nerve); and swallowing or speech difficulties (9th and 12th cranial nerves). Other neurologic symptoms, such as weakness and sensory abnormalities, should be sought, noting whether these are intermittent or constant. Nonneurologic symptoms of potential causes are ascertained. They include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea (botulism); palpitations, heat sensitivity, and weight loss (Graves disease); and difficulty with bladder control (multiple sclerosis).
Past medical history should seek presence of known hypertension, diabetes, or both; atherosclerosis, particularly including cerebrovascular disease; and alcohol abuse.
Examination begins with a review of vital signs for fever and general appearance for signs of toxicity (eg, prostration, confusion).
Eye examination begins with noting the initial position of the eyes, followed by measuring visual acuity (with correction) in each eye and both together, which also helps determine whether diplopia is monocular or binocular. Eye examination should note presence of bulging of one or both eyes, eyelid droop, pupillary abnormalities, and disconjugate eye movement and nystagmus during ocular motility testing. Ophthalmoscopy should be done, particularly noting any abnormalities of the lens (eg, cataract, displacement) and retina (eg, detachment).
Ocular motility is tested by having the patient hold the head steady and track the examiner's finger, which is moved to extreme gaze to the right, left, upward, downward, diagonally to either side, and finally inward toward the patient's nose (convergence). However, mild paresis of ocular motility sufficient to cause diplopia may escape detection by such examination.
If diplopia occurs in one direction of gaze, the eye that produces each image can be determined by repeating the examination with a red glass placed over one of the patient's eyes. The image that is more peripheral originates in the paretic eye; ie, if the more peripheral image is red, the red glass is covering the paretic eye. If a red glass is not available, the paretic eye can sometimes be identified by having the patient close each eye. The paretic eye is the eye that when closed eliminates the more peripheral image.
The other cranial nerves are tested, and the remainder of the neurologic examination, including strength, sensation, reflexes, cerebellar function, and observation of gait, is completed.
Relevant nonneurophthalmologic components of the examination include palpation of the neck for goiter and inspection of the shins for pretibial myxedema (Graves disease).
The following findings are of particular concern:
Interpretation of findings:
Findings sometimes suggest which cranial nerve is involved.
Other findings help suggest a cause (see Table 6: Some Causes of Binocular Diplopia).
Intermittent diplopia suggests a waxing and waning neurologic disorder, such as myasthenia gravis or multiple sclerosis, or unmasking of a latent phoria (eye deviation). Patients with latent phoria do not have any other neurologic manifestations.
Internuclear ophthalmoplegia (INO) results from a brain stem lesion in the medial longitudinal fasciculus (MLF). INO manifests on horizontal gaze testing with diplopia, weak adduction on the affected side (usually cannot adduct eye past midline), and nystagmus of the contralateral eye. However, the affected eye adducts normally on convergence testing (which does not require an intact MLF).
Pain suggests a compressive lesion or inflammatory disorder.
Patients with monocular diplopia are referred to an ophthalmologist for evaluation of ocular pathology; no other tests are required beforehand.
For binocular diplopia, patients with a unilateral, single cranial nerve palsy, a normal pupillary light response, and no other symptoms or signs can usually be observed without testing for a few weeks. Many cases resolve spontaneously. Ophthalmologic evaluation may be done to monitor the patient and help further delineate the deficit.
Most other patients require neuroimaging with MRI to detect orbital, cranial, or CNS abnormalities. CT may be substituted if there is concern about a metallic intraocular foreign body or if MRI is otherwise contraindicated or unavailable. Imaging should be done immediately if findings suggest infection, aneurysm, or acute (< 3 h) stroke.
Patients with manifestations of Graves disease should have thyroid tests (serum thyroxine [T4] and thyroid-stimulating hormone [TSH] levels). Testing for myasthenia gravis and multiple sclerosis should be strongly considered for patients with intermittent diplopia.
Treatment is management of the underlying disorder.
Last full review/revision August 2014 by Kathryn Colby, MD, PhD
Content last modified August 2014