Swollen Optic Nerve


A swollen optic nerve can happen due to variety of reasons and may result in partial or complete loss of vision. People suffering from an inflamed optic nerve may also feel some pain along with vision problems. Individuals who are afflicted with some form of autoimmune disease may also experience swollen optic nerve.  Those who experience a single bout of inflamed optic nerve recover their vision eventually.

A swollen optic nerve usually clears on its own even without treatment. However, steroid medications are often used to reduce the inflammation as well as speed up the recovery process. Depending on the underlying cause and extent of inflammation, a swollen optic nerve may clear in several days to months.

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What is the role of the optic nerve?

The optic nerve plays a vital role in the ability to see things clearly. There are millions of nerve cells in every optic nerve. They can be likened to a shackle of electrical wires that connects the eye to the brain. Each wire transmits part of the visual information into the brain. Vision is established because the optic nerves carry the image from the retina to the brain. An inflammation of all or part of the optic nerve will impair its normal function and results in vision problems.

Why does the optic nerve swell?

Scientists have yet to establish the reason behind a swollen optic nerve. However, it is believed that the inflammation occurs as a result of the immune system mistakenly assaulting the covering of the optic nerve called myelin. Myelin is a substance that facilitates the transmission of electrical impulses from the optic nerve to the brain which are then translated into visual information. What initiates the immune system to attack the myelin is not fully understood but such assault results in the swelling of the myelin, and eventually the optic nerve, thereby affecting the vision.

Who are at risk of having a swollen optic nerve?

People who have a family history of multiple sclerosis or inflamed optic nerve are predisposed to have it as well. Also, the condition is quite common among females than males. Although it may affect anyone regardless of age, studies revealed that young adults are prone to experience it between 20 and 40 years of age. The affected individuals should never belittle a swollen optic nerve because it may lead to other complications such as:

  • Permanent damage to optic nerve
  • Reduced visual acuity
  • Suppressed immune system as a side effect of the treatment

What causes the optic nerve to swell?

The condition is believed to be caused by some type of autoimmune disorder, such as Multiple sclerosis, Sarcoidosis, Systemic lupus erythematosus and Neuromyelitis optica.

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Certain circumstances may also result in swollen optic nerve, which include Cranial arteritis, infections, radiation therapy, and certain medications.

What will happen to people whose optic nerves have swollen?

Individuals with inflamed optic nerves will experience a variety of symptoms, though not all the time. Some of these are:

  • Sore and tender eyes
  • Pain at the back of the eye with eye movement
  • Dim and dull vision
  • Reduced peripheral vision and color perception
  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Blurred vision
  • Central blind spot

Swollen optic nerve diagnosis

People with inflamed optic nerve should visit an eye doctor for proper diagnosis. The doctor will conduct a series of tests including:

  • Eye exam
  • Papillary light reaction test
  • Opthalmoscopy
  • Blood tests
  • MRI scan (magnetic resonance imaging)
  • Visual response test

Swollen optic nerve treatment

Most people affected with an inflamed optic nerve regain normal vision even without treatment as the swelling clears on its own. Still, management primarily involves steroid medications to reduce the inflammation. This may be given intravenously or orally. For those with substantial vision loss, they may be treated with high dosage of corticosteroids administered intravenously, and in some cases, plasma exchange therapy is used. The time for recovery varies from patient to patient which may run for several days to months.

How to prevent the recurrence of swollen optic nerve

The reappearance of a swollen optic nerve is inevitable for those who are suffering from multiple sclerosis and neuromyelitis optica. Since vision health is a depiction of one’s overall health, dietary and lifestyle choices play a vital role in preventing the optic nerve from getting inflamed. This can be done by:

  • Reducing the consumption of soda, caffeine, as well as man-made fat
  • Avoiding deep fried foods and MSG
  • Controlling alcohol consumption
  • Limiting prescription and non-prescription medications
  • Quitting smoking
  • Following the recommended vision diet
  • Taking eye supplementation
  • Exercising regularly
  • Managing emotional health

A swollen optic nerve is something that shouldn’t be taken for granted as it has the potential to result in permanent loss of vision. It may clear by itself, but once an individual experiences any of inflamed optic nerve symptoms, a visit to an eye doctor is needed to rule out any possible underlying cause and to commence treatment immediately.


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One Comment

  1. Ven Nguyen says:

    I have the optic nerve swollen problem since 2011 (Left eye) and 2012 (Right eye). I have done ant tests (3 MRI times, LUMBAR…) from different hospitals and Opthamologists, but I have NO result for my eye’s problem. I need your helps to have any specific medicine or specialist MD or hospital for treatment.
    Thank you very much for your time.
    Ven Nguyen

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