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APPROACH TO THE PATIENT: Acute Visual Loss or Double Vision

Accurate measurement of visual acuity in each eye (with glasses or contact lenses) is of primary importance. Additional assessments include testing of pupils, eye movements, ocular alignment, and visual fields. Slit-lamp examination can exclude corneal infection, trauma, glaucoma, uveitis, and cataract. Ophthalmoscopic examination to inspect the optic disc and retina often requires pupillary dilation using 1% tropicamide and 2.5% phenylephrine; risk of provoking an attack of narrow-angle glaucoma is remote.

Visual field mapping by finger confrontation localizes lesions in the visual pathway (Fig. 52-1); formal testing using a perimeter may be necessary. The goal is to determine whether the lesion is anterior to, at, or posterior to the optic chiasm. A scotoma confined to one eye is caused by an anterior lesion affecting the optic nerve or globe; swinging flashlight test may reveal an afferent pupil defect. History and ocular examination are usually sufficient for diagnosis. If a bitemporal hemianopia is present, lesion is located at optic chiasm (e.g., pituitary adenoma, meningioma). Homonymous visual field loss signals a retrochiasmal lesion affecting the optic tract, lateral geniculate body, optic radiations, or visual cortex (e.g., stroke, tumor, abscess). Neuroimaging is recommended for any pt with a bitemporal or homonymous hemianopia.


Deficits in visual fields caused by lesions affecting visual pathways.


Amaurosis fugax (transient monocular blindness; a TIA of the retina) usually occurs from a retinal embolus often arising from ipsilateral carotid stenosis or the heart. Prolonged occlusion of the central retinal artery results in classic fundus appearance of a milky, infarcted retina with cherry red fovea. Any pt with compromise of the retinal circulation should be evaluated promptly for stroke risk factors (e.g., carotid atheroma, heart disease, atrial fibrillation). Occipital cortex lesions can be confused with amaurosis fugax because many pts mistakenly ascribe symptoms to their left or right eye, when in fact they are occurring in the left or right hemifield of both eyes. Interruption of blood flow to the visual cortex causes sudden graying of vision, occasionally with flashing lights or other symptoms that mimic migraine. The history may be the only guide to the correct diagnosis. Pts should be questioned about the precise pattern and duration of visual loss and other neurologic symptoms, especially those of posterior circulation dysfunction such as diplopia, vertigo, numbness, or weakness.

Marked systemic hypertension can cause visual loss from exudates, hemorrhages, cotton-wool spots (focal nerve fiber layer infarcts), and optic disc edema.

In central or branch retinal vein occlusion, the fundus examination reveals engorged, phlebitic veins with extensive retinal hemorrhages.

In age-related macular degeneration, characterized by extensive drusen and scarring of the pigment epithelium, leakage of blood or fluid from subretinal ...

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