What is Optic Neuritis? Symptoms, Causes & Treatments

Concept image with a diagnosis for optic neuritis
Not all eye diseases and eye health issues cause pain, which is why keeping up with routine eye exams is crucial to detect conditions that may not be obvious without a close examination of the eyes.

Optic neuritis—the medical name for swelling of the optic nerve—typically announces itself with pain. And anytime you experience eye pain, it is wise to contact an experienced eye care provider to advise you and perform an emergency eye exam. Eye pain is not normal, and eye pain with noticeable vision loss—as can occur with optic neuritis—is an eye health emergency.

Today’s blog post gives you what you need to know about optic neuritis, including how this optic nerve condition can be a sign of certain autoimmune disorders and other diseases.

About Optic Neuritis

In short, optic neuritis occurs when the optic nerve swells. The optic nerve is essentially the vision center between your eyes and brain—it carries light signals from the back of your eye to your brain so you can see. When your optic nerve is swollen for any reason, you will not be able to see clearly.

While optic neuritis tends to present itself with relatively consistent signs and symptoms, eye doctors are not entirely certain about what causes an inflamed optic nerve in one or both eyes. The American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) has shared research that suggests that the condition may be caused by the body’s immune system attacking optic nerve tissue by mistake.

This may be linked to problems with viruses, like measles and the flu, bacterial infections, or to certain autoimmune disorders. It is unclear whether COVID-19 can cause optic neuritis, but research into this possibility is underway.

Symptoms & Signs of Optic Neuritis

As mentioned above, the different symptoms of optic neuritis don’t tend to vary that much between afflicted individuals. Vision loss and eye pain will reliably result from an inflamed optic nerve. However, these symptoms will vary in intensity from person to person. Additionally, while optic neuritis typically occurs in one eye, you may experience symptoms in both of your eyes simultaneously.

Symptoms can come on suddenly or develop gradually over a few days. You should consider contacting your eye doctor if you are experiencing any of these optic neuritis signs:

  • Blurred vision or dim vision—you can not see clearly, or it’s as though someone turned down the lights
  • Changed to color perception—colors appear dull or faded
  • Pain in the back of your eye socket
  • Pain when you move your eyes
  • Vision loss or visual field changes, such as dark spots in your central or peripheral vision

Optic neuritis symptoms can sometimes clear up on their own, though they more often get worse over time. They can also become worse if you’re overheated or tired. For example, you might experience symptoms more intensely after exercise or other physical exertion.

Who is at Risk for Developing Optic Neuritis?

Unlike many eye diseases and conditions, older adults are not at a notably higher risk of developing optic neuritis, as it tends to occur to younger adults between the ages of 20 and 40. Caucasian women are the most likely to develop optic neuritis compared to individuals from other races and men.

A significant risk factor for optic neuritis appears to be the immune disease multiple sclerosis. In fact, optic neuritis may signal the onset of MS. The Mayo Clinic reports, “in people with optic neuritis, the risk of developing multiple sclerosis after one episode of optic neuritis is about 50% over a lifetime. Your risk of developing multiple sclerosis after optic neuritis increases further if an MRI scan shows lesions on your brain.”

If you’ve already been diagnosed with MS, lupus, or some other autoimmune disorders, you may be more likely to experience recurrent optic neuritis. An experienced ophthalmologist can help you determine your risks for optic nerve damage based on other diagnoses you may have.

How You Can Treat Optic Neuritis

Your eye doctor can diagnose optic neuritis during a routine eye exam through a series of vision tests and looking at the structures inside your eye. Blood tests and MRIs may be ordered to check for other conditions related to optic neuritis.

The good news is that uncomplicated cases of optic neuritis typically improve on their own. Your doctor may prescribe certain steroid medications to reduce inflammation and make you more comfortable as you wait for normal vision to return, which usually happens within about six months.

If it is determined that you may be at risk of developing MS based on your experience with optic neuritis, you may undergo treatment with preventative medications to delay the onset of that disease. Your ophthalmologist will help you determine what your next steps in your treatment journey should be.

Call Campus Eye Center for Help with Vision Problems or Eye Health Concerns

Here at Campus Eye Center, we are proud to be the Lancaster area’s best resource for helping patients of all ages live better by seeing better. If you suspect you may be suffering from optic neuritis, we urge you to give our caring team a call right away.

Campus Eye Center is a comprehensive eye healthcare practice with both ophthalmologists and doctors of optometry on staff to address any vision problem or eyecare need. Make an appointment to see us today.