Vision loss may occur from an abnormality in the visual system from the tear film to the occipital cortex. The most important factor to determine initially is the rapidity of symptom onset. Early assessment of the presence or absence of associated symptoms such as pain, double vision, and flashes and/or floaters is also important. This helps to identify patients with potentially life-threatening disease and highlights those requiring prompt ophthalmology opinion or surgical intervention.
Acute vision loss that occurs suddenly or over the course of several minutes to hours usually requires urgent ophthalmic opinion. People with subacute or chronic vision loss (where vision loss has developed over weeks, months, or years) may still need specialist input, but usually on a non-urgent basis.
Any significant vision loss justifies a call to an ophthalmologist for advice on referral timing.
Vision loss may also be the initial manifestation of a number of systemic diseases for which separate workup is required.
Acute vision loss
Retinal or optic nerve disease usually presents acutely. Other acute causes of vision loss include acute angle-closure glaucoma, retinal vascular occlusion, and trauma.
The patient's age and determination of the medical history assists in diagnosis.
Chronic vision loss
Patients may recognize symptoms of chronic deterioration "acutely," meaning chronic vision loss may present in the emergency department, making diagnosis difficult.
Associated symptom review makes it possible to differentiate between urgent and nonurgent cases and arrange for appropriate ophthalmic consultation.
It is essential to take thorough histories, focusing on vascular and neurologic processes as well as visual processes.
Diabetic retinopathies may develop before systemic diabetes is diagnosed, making it important to measure blood glucose levels in all patients presenting with acute vision loss. Arrange an ophthalmologic examination of all newly diagnosed adults with diabetes.
Other serious systemic diseases (including granulomatosis with polyangiitis, bacterial meningitis, or disseminated malignancies) may need to be addressed in the emergency department or by hospital admission.
- Corneal ulcer
- Dry eye syndrome (tear dysfunction syndrome)
- Dry age-related macular degeneration
- Posterior uveitis
- Nondiabetic myopic lens shift
- Wet age-related macular degeneration
- Vitreous hemorrhage
- Retinal venous occlusion
- Retinal arterial occlusion
- Migraine headache or acephalgic migraine aura
- Pituitary tumor
- Diabetic retinopathy
- Diabetic myopic lens shift
- Corneal hydrops
- Traumatic vision loss
- Optic neuritis
- Leber hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON)
- Acute angle-closure glaucoma
- Retinal detachment
- Postoperative endophthalmitis
- Central retinal artery occlusion
- Pituitary apoplexy
- Arteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy/giant cell arteritis
- Nonarteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy
- Transient ischemic attack (TIA)
- Cancer-associated retinopathy
Jeffrey R. SooHoo, MD
Sue Anschutz-Rodgers Eye Center
Department of Ophthalmology
University of Colorado School of Medicine
JRS declares that he has no competing interests.
Dr Jeffrey R. SooHoo would like to gratefully acknowledge Dr Prem S. Subramanian, the previous contributor to this topic. PSS declares that he has no competing interests.
Andrew G. Lee, MD
The H. Stanley Neuro-ophthalmology Professor of Ophthalmology, Neurology, and Neurosurgery
The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics
AGL declares that he has no competing interests.
Robert Avery, MD, PhD
Professor of Ophthalmology
University of New Mexico Medical School
RA declares that he has no competing interests.
Augusto Azuara-Blanco, PhD, FRCS(Ed), FRCOphth
Clinical Senior Lecturer
Health Services Research Unit
University of Aberdeen
Honorary Consultant Ophthalmologist
AA-B declares that he has no competing interests.
Stephen Vernon, DM, FRCS, FRCOphth, FCOptom (Hon), DO
Special Professor of Ophthalmology
University of Nottingham
Consultant Ophthalmic Surgeon
Nottingham University Hospitals
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