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Optic neuritis is a condition that affects the eye and your vision, and occurs when the optic nerve is inflamed.
The optic nerve sends messages from your eyes to your brain so that you can interpret visual images. When the optic nerve is irritated and inflamed, it doesn't carry messages to the brain as well, and you can't see clearly.
Optic neuritis can affect your vision and cause pain. When the nerve fibers become inflamed, the optic nerve can also start to swell. This swelling typically affects one eye, but can affect both at the same time.
Optic neuritis can affect both adults and children. The underlying cause isn't completely understood, but experts believe that a viral infection may trigger the immune system to attack the optic nerve as if it were a foreign invader.
Loss of vision in optic neuritis commonly reaches its maximum effect within a few days and starts improving within 4 to 12 weeks.
The cause of optic neuritis isn’t always clear. It may be caused by an infection, however, it is a common condition among those who have multiple sclerosis (MS), a progressive, neurologic disorder. Over 60% of people who have MS will develop optic neuritis, and often, it's the first sign of MS.
You are at increased risk for optic neuritis if you:
The following visual difficulties are common with optic neuritis:
The symptoms of optic neuritis can vary widely in severity. More extensive optic nerve inflammation leads to more noticeable symptoms.
Just because you have severe symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean that optic neuritis will never go away. Additionally, not everyone who has optic neuritis has problems with his or her vision. It's possible for the optic nerve to be inflamed without affecting vision. A careful, medical evaluation of the eye can generally pinpoint optic neuritis even if you don’t have symptoms.
A health care provider can diagnose optic neuritis with these tests:
More testing may help to determine the underlying cause of the optic neuritis. However, identifying a specific cause isn’t always possible.
In some cases, you may not need any treatment for optic neuritis. After a few weeks, it may go away on its own and your vision will return to normal. This is more likely if you don’t have another health condition that has triggered the optic neuritis.
Sometimes a health care provider may recommend a brief course of steroids, usually injected into your vein, to help your vision improve more quickly and minimize inflammation and swelling.
You may also need treatment for another health condition if it’s considered the source of your optic neuritis.
Taking corticosteroids on a long-term basis can lead to side effects, such as high blood sugar, weight gain, and bone problems, that affect your whole body. Overall, corticosteroids won’t likely lead to a better outcome than letting the condition run its course. There are also side effects from steroids. However, in people with certain brain changes seen on MRI intravenous steroids may help prevent future episodes of optic neuritis.
Since health care providers can't always identify the cause of optic neuritis, it can not be prevented.
If you experience eye pain or any trouble with your vision, you should visit your doctor for an eye exam. If you've already been diagnosed with optic neuritis, call your doctor if your symptoms change, worsen, or just don't get any better.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:
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