Ocular Symptoms and Conditions: Blurred Vision
Blurred vision can come about from any disturbance in the pathway of light from the front of the eye (the cornea) to the retina. Disorders of the optic nerves which transmit visual information to the brain can also be a source of blurred vision. A change in vision can be as simple as a need for glasses, but in some cases more complicated reasons for blurred vision can be present, and a complete eye examination may be necessary to determine the cause.
This page discusses causes of blurred vision that normally have very few other symptoms. Some of these conditions can cause more than just blurred vision, they may cause a loss of vision. Conditions which usually cause a more severe loss of vision are discussed on the Loss of Vision page. Many other eye problems can cause blurred vision along with numerous other symptoms. Links to these Symptom and Diagnosis pages based on these other symptoms are included as well.
Conditions Discussed on this Page:
- Refractive Error (the need for a change in glasses)
- "After-Cataract" or Secondary Membrane
- Macular Degeneration
- Macular Edema
- Central serous Chorioretinopathy
- Corneal Edema
- Keratoconus (a corneal degeneration)
- Optic Neuritis
- Optic Neuropathy
- Other conditions causing blurred vision found on other pages
Refractive Error (the need for a change in glasses)
A need for glasses leads to blurred vision. With nearsightedness and astigmatism, the distance vision is blurred, but the near vision may be clear. Sometimes this blurring comes out more at night, and there may be the impression of double vision or ghost images. Farsightedness leads to blurry near vision, but the distance may be blurry as well. The need for reading glasses develops especially in the mid-forty's. For more detailed information on the need for glasses and contact lenses, see the section on Optics.
Cataract is a common cause of blurred vision. Cataract occurs commonly in people over 50 years old, but may occur in younger people as well. Usually, with cataract there is a gradual blurring of vision. In some cases, cataract can lead to a change in glasses prescription. There are often other visual symptoms along with blurring from cataract, including glare problems, problems with night vision, and disturbances in color vision. Cataract does not cause pain or the sensation that something is in the eye. For more information on cataract, see the section Cataract.
"After-Cataract" (also known as Secondary Membrane, Opacification of the Posterior Lens Capsule)
The "After-Cataract" or Secondary Membrane is actually a clouding or fibrosis of the posterior lens capsule that can occur at some time after cataract extraction. At the time of cataract / implant surgery, the original lens of the eye is removed except for the lens capsule. The intraocular lens implant is then placed within or on top of the remaining clear lens capsule. Over a period of months or years, the lens capsule may become clouded behind the implant, thus blurring the vision and creating glare symptoms. This is very similar to the visual effect of the original cataract. If the capsule clouding continues to progress, the vision might become severely blurred.
If the capsule clouding becomes visually significant, a minor laser procedure (YAG capsulotomy) can clear an opening in the capsule behind the implant. About 20-30 percent of cataract cases will eventually need the capsulotomy procedure at some point in the patient's life. Once the capsule is cleared with the laser, in almost never will recur.
Macular degeneration is a retinal disease that is a common cause of visual loss in the older population, especially in Caucasians. With mild forms of macular degeneration there may be a blurring of the central vision. In more severe cases, the entire central visual area (for reading, etc.) may be gone. In some cases, distortion in the vision may precede a loss of vision. Distortion in the vision can be recognized when straight lines appear bent, or crooked. A person experiencing this symptom should seek evaluation by an ophthalmologist immediately. Usually, the term "macular degeneration" refers to "age-related macular degeneration", or a retinal disorder occurring primarily in the elderly. Similar conditions occur with ocular histoplasmosis and high degrees of nearsightedness (myopic macular degeneration). For a more detailed discussion, go the the section on Macular Degeneration.
The "macula" is the part of the retina that perceives our central, or reading, vision. A number of disorders can cause swelling, or edema, of this part of the retina. With macular edema, the vision is usually blurred. Things may appear washed out, and color vision may be reduced. There may be some distortion of the vision as well. Some conditions leading to macular edema include:
Diabetes - diabetic macular edema is a common problem in diabetes that can lead to permanent visual loss if it is left untreated. For more information on this, go to the section on Diabetic eye disease.
Cystoid macular edema - this condition, abbreviated CME, is a cystic accumulation of fluid in the macula, which can lead to blurred vision. This occurs sometimes after eye surgery (especially cataract or glaucoma surgery). Sometimes it occurs with inflammatory conditions of the eye (iritis). In a few cases, it occurs spontaneously. Often, CME resolves on its own. An eye drop or other medications may help, and treating any underlying cause (if one can be found) may help as well. It can be a frustrating condition to treat.
Macular edema can occur with blockages of veins in the eye. If the main vein that drains the retinal blood circulation becomes blocked (central retinal vein occlusion), the macula may become severely swollen. There may be no effective treatment for this. If only a branch of a vein is blocked (branch retinal vein occlusion), the macula may also become swollen. This problem is treatable by laser, if the vision is sufficiently blurred to need treatment. Usually a generous time period is waited before treating this condition (months), since often it resolves spontaneously. Newer treatments for macular edema from retinal vascular occlusions include intravitreal injections with anti-VEGF medications (anti vascular endothelial growth factor).
Central serous Chorioretinopathy
Central serous Chorioretinopathy is a retinal condition is common in the younger population (30's to 50's), and can cause variable visual effects. This condition is an accumulation of fluid under the retina due to a leakage of fluid from beneath the retina. Some people experience blurred vision, and some distorted vision. Some people describe a circular gray or faded spot in their vision, and some people have disturbed color vision. This condition usually resolves spontaneously with little permanent loss of vision. Some times a laser surgery can help to speed the resolution. Many cases recur.
Aside from the diabetic effects on the retina (see the section on Diabetic Eye Disease), a sudden rise in the blood sugar (hyperglycemia) can cause the lens in the eye to become swollen. Usually the blood sugar has to rise over 300 for a change in vision to occur. This may cause a significant shift in the glasses prescription toward farsightedness. Thus, a normally nearsighted person may see an actual improvement in their vision without glasses. However, a person who is not using glasses, or who is already farsighted, will see a worsening in prescription. Some people find that their distance vision is clearer when viewed through their bifocal! Once the blood sugar is controlled, the glasses prescription will revert back to normal over a period of a few weeks. Usually both eyes are affected at the same time.
Edema, or swelling, of the cornea occurs when the cornea is unable to keep itself clear, and fluid begins to accumulate within it. The inside lining of the cornea (corneal endothelium) is responsible for keeping the cornea clear of fluid, and if this layer is becomes damaged symptoms of corneal edema may occur. When mild, corneal edema may cause fluctuating or occasionally blurred vision. This may be worst when first opening the eyes after sleeping. One may see rainbows around headlights or streetlights. When severe, corneal edema can substantially blur the vision. Occasionally blisters may form on the surface of the eye (bullae), which can rupture and cause pain, like a corneal abrasion. Causes of corneal edema include:
- A disorder of the corneal endothelium (Fuchs' endothelial dystrophy), which can lead to progressively worsening corneal edema over years. This usually affects both eyes.
- Prior eye surgery, such as cataract surgery, can lead to temporary corneal edema. If the cornea was not healthy prior to surgery, an intraocular procedure can cause the cornea to fail, and severe edema can result. Certain types of lens implants (no longer used) are known to cause corneal edema and failure. If the vitreous gel within the eye is allowed to come forward into the front part of the eye (anterior chamber), it can cause corneal edema as well. Severe corneal edema resulting from these causes is often termed "bullous keratopathy".
- Eye trauma can cause corneal damage and edema.
- Acute glaucoma, with very high eye pressure, can cause corneal edema as well as pain. Chronic glaucoma (much more common) usually does not cause this.
- Contact lens overuse can lead to corneal edema, and is a risk factor for infection.
Treatment of corneal edema sometimes depends on its cause. Mild edema can be treated with hypertonic eye drops and ointment (Muro 128, available over-the-counter). This draws fluid out of the cornea and into the tears, and helps to clear the cornea. More severe edema, especially with blister (bullae) formation, may require corneal transplant to correct. Sometimes a corneal transplant is combined with cataract extraction, a lens implant exchange, or removal of vitreous material, if these are also problems. A newer procedure called DSEK (Descemet Stripping Endothelial Keratoplasty) involves replacement of only the corneal endothelium through a small incision, and allows a faster healing time. For more information on corneal disorders, go to Cornea and External Disease.
Keratoconus is a disease of the cornea where there is a progressive thinning and bulging of the cornea so that it eventually takes on a cone shape. This generally is not a visible change to the naked eye, but the distortion in the shape of the cornea leads to worsening astigmatism and blurring of vision. Both eyes are usually affected, although one may be much worse than the other. There is no known cause of the disorder, and there is no clear hereditary pattern in most cases. The condition usually stabilizes in early adulthood, although there may be further worsening possible.
There is no cure for the disorder, nor any means to stop its progression. However, the eye is generally otherwise healthy, and glasses (mild disease) and later contact lenses (more severe disease) can greatly improve the vision. In the presence of keratoconus, refractive surgery is contraindicated (not done). In cases where the vision cannot be improved with correction, or if contact lens use is not possible, a corneal transplant is an option. Corneal transplants are generally highly successful after keratoconus, although contact lenses may sometimes still be needed to fully correct the vision. Keratoconus does not recur in a transplant.
An unusual complication of keratoconus is "acute hydrops". When this happens the central cornea suddenly becomes swollen, and the vision becomes blurred and the eye may be painful. With medical treatment, the condition subsides over a period of a few weeks.
Optic neuritis is an inflammatory condition of the optic nerve. Usually one eye is involved at a time. The vision can become progressively blurrier over a period of hours or days. Sometimes, a blind spot erases the central vision. There may be pain with eye movement. After the vision reaches a low point, it usually gradually recovers over a period of weeks to months. There may be some residual blurred vision, blind spots, loss of color vision, or dimming of vision which persists. Treatment is controversial.
It is currently recommended to have an MRI of the head done with an episode of optic neuritis. This may demonstrate findings which could show risk for development of multiple sclerosis, in the non-pediatric age range. If these findings are found, high dose IV steroids given at the time of an episode of optic neuritis may not only speed the visual recovery, but also delay onset of MS. There are studies being done with other medications which may help as well.
The optic nerve is subject to losing its blood supply, as is any part of the brain. In the brain, this is called a stroke, or cerebrovascular accident (CVA). In the optic nerve, this is called "ischemic optic neuropathy", or ION. Symptoms of this disorder, which usually occurs in the elderly, is a sudden, painless blurring or loss of vision in one eye. After the initial event, there may be some recovery of vision over a period of weeks. The visual loss can range from mild blurring of vision, to severe loss of vision. Color vision may be affected, and there may be blind spots in the peripheral (side) vision. Some people experience an entire loss of the upper or lower field of vision in one eye. There is an association of this disorder with vascular disease, and it is important to exclude one possible cause of ION, called Giant Cell Arteritis (GCA), also known as Temporal Arteritis. Rapid diagnosis and treatment of GCA may prevent loss of vision in the other eye. Otherwise, there is no effective treatment for ION, except treating any underlying medical problems.
For more information, click these links for ischemic optic neuropathy and Giant Cell Arteritis.
A number of medications have been associated with the development of an optic neuropathy, leading to reduced visual acuity, blind spots in the peripheral vision, or reduced color vision. Some medications associated with an optic neuropathy include amiodarone, chlorpropamide, ethambutol, and isoniazide. There is also a nutritional optic neuropathy which can develop with alcohol and tobacco use.
Other Conditions causing blurred vision found on other pages:
A link to each condition is listed along with other hallmark features of the condition.
- Blepharitis - itching, burning, eyelid irritation. Can lead to corneal irritation and blurred vision.
- Contact lens related problems - vision may be related to lens condition, infection, allergy, or other problem.
- Corneal abrasion - pain, tearing, sensation that something is in eye.
- Corneal ulcer - an infected cornea can sometimes cause blurred vision along with pain and redness.
- Chalazion (stye) - a stye can cause astigmatism pressing on the eye and blur the vision.
- Conjunctivitis - vision sometimes blurs due to discharge or mucous.
- Dry eye - irritation, scratchy sensation, sometimes tearing and blurred vision.
- Glaucoma (acute) - pain, blurred vision, rainbows around lights.
- Iritis - pain, sensitivity to light, blurred vision.
- Orbital cellulitis (infection) - infection of the orbit behind the eye can lead to blurred or double vision, pain, and eye protrusion.
- Scleritis - pain, blurred vision, redness.
- Giant Cell Arteritis - headache with blurring or loss of vision, usually in the elderly.
- Thyroid related eye disease - scratchy sensation, double or blurred vision, protruding eyes.
- Uveitis - inflammation within the eye can lead to floaters, pain, and blurred vision.
- Vitreous hemorrhage - bleeding into the vitreous jelly of the eye can cause blurring of vision, or if is more severe, a loss of vision.