Understanding Optic Atrophy

When you open your eyes and look around, light hits your eyes and the visual information is transmitted in electric impulses to your brain. In a process that many people take for granted, the optic nerve is responsible for carrying these visual signals from the eye to the brain. Patients who have been diagnosed with optic atrophy have a condition in which the nerve has deteriorated.

Whether you have been diagnosed with optic atrophy yourself or are seeking support for a friend or relative with this condition, it’s best to arm yourself with information, including an overview and details about how prevalent optic atrophy is. It’s also useful to become familiar with signs, symptoms, causes and options for support.



Optic atrophy is not a disease, but a condition. It occurs when the patient’s optic nerve deteriorates, typically because of a serious underlying condition.

Early detection of optic atrophy is essential for limiting the future progression of this condition. Damage from optic atrophy is not reversible, so patients with symptoms should address it as soon as possible with their doctor.

Diagnosis occurs when an ophthalmologist uses an ophthalmoscope to gaze at the optic disk. The optic disk is located in the back of the eye, where the optic nerve connects. If the doctor sees that the optic disc is pale, it’s a sign that blood flow has changed in the area. Poor blood flow leads to nerve damage, with nerve fibers deteriorating.

During the examination, the ophthalmologist may conduct other diagnostic tests as well, including checking peripheral vision and the ability to distinguish colors from one another. In cases where the doctor surmises the problem could be tied to multiple sclerosis or a tumor, the patient could be a candidate for testing with a magnetic resonance imaging or MRI machine.

Faded and blurred photo of leaves. A representation of what someone living with Optic Atrophy might see.
Faded and blurred photo of leaves. A representation of what someone living with Optic Atrophy might see.



The prevalence of blindness caused by optic atrophy is 0.8%, according to a New England Journal of Medicine study cited in a Medscape report, which noted that another report in Archives of Ophthalmology found prevalence of visual impairment was 0.04% and blindness was 0.12%. It’s a rare condition by any standard.

The prevalence of optic atrophy differ by race, with occurrence being 0.3% in African Americans, compared to 0.5% in Caucasians. This condition affects both genders equally and it can occur at any age.

Common Signs and Symptoms


The most common signs and symptoms of optic atrophy are dimming of vision and a reduction in the patient’s field of view. Patients typically lose their ability to see in fine details as well, noted Medline. This might be the first time a person notices something is happening to their vision.

What’s more, colors will gradually start to appear more faded and less vivid. As the condition worsens, pupils become less reactive to light. In some cases, the patient may lose all ability to react to light. In all cases, at the first suspicion of a problem with vision is the time to book an appointment with an eye doctor for investigation and diagnosis.

Common Causes


As optic atrophy is a condition that has a number of causes, diagnosis may begin at the primary care provider or in the office of your eye doctor. Generally, an underlying condition is getting in the way of the optic nerve conducting signals to the brain. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the most common causes of optic atrophy include:

* Glaucoma

* Optic nerve formed improperly before birth

* Vision loss occurs in one eye first, and then the other, indicating patient has an inherited condition called Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy

* Multiple sclerosis causes optic neuritis, which is a swelling or inflammation of the optic nerve caused by MS

* A growing tumor is pressing on the patient’s optic nerve

Such various potential causes of optic atrophy underscore the importance of visiting a primary care provider on a regular basis as well as seeing an eye doctor at least once a year for routine surveillance of eye health. After all, symptoms that present themselves in the eyes can sometimes be the first signs of another undiagnosed health condition, detected by the eye doctor before they are discovered by a family doctor.

Options and Support


Currently there is no treatment to reverse the damage caused by optic atrophy. However, it’s prudent to consult with a doctor to learn about any underlying disease that could cause the condition to progress further. This includes regularly monitoring blood pressure and taking steps to keep it under control, with supervision from primary health care providers. Be sure to schedule eye exams once per year, to be screened for possible glaucoma.

To gain greater peace of mind about optic atrophy, it’s worth considering joining a local support group. Comparing notes about experiences can provide insight into how others have handled their vision loss.

A good place to start in finding local resources for supporting a patient with optic atrophy is the Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center’s page on Optic Atrophy, found here, run through the United States National Institutes of Health.

Technological aids may be an option for you to investigate as well. For example, low vision aids like eSight integrate sophisticated cameras, computer algorithms and a high-resolution display to help people see a clearer image, enhancing vision.

Click here to learn how eSight enhanced sight for Cosmo Moore, a young man living with optic atrophy.

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