What is Inflammation of the Optic Nerve and What Causes It?
Inflammation of the optic nerve is also known in medical terms as optic neuritis. It occurs when the nerve’s protective fatty covering, called the myelin sheath, is swollen and inflamed beyond its regular size. This swelling is dangerous, as it can lead to partial or total blindness. The optic nerve is responsible for carrying visual information from your eye to your brain. Symptoms of optic nerve inflammation include:
Sudden loss of vision in the affected eye, either partially or totally
Pain that is worsened by eye movement
Loss of color vision
Sudden appearance of flashing lights in vision
What Causes Inflammation of the Optic Nerve and Who Gets It?
Swelling of the optic nerve is most commonly seen in people who suffer from the degenerative autoimmune disease called multiple sclerosis (MS). MS causes damage to the protective fatty covering of the nerves in the brain and spinal cord, so it is no surprise that it can also damage the optic nerve.
Another degenerative nerve condition, called neuromyelitis optica, is the second leading cause of optic nerve inflammation. Similar to MS, this disease primarily affects the eye and spinal cord but doesn’t often cause damage to brain cells. Other causes of optic nerve swelling include:
Bacterial infections such as Lyme disease or syphilis
Viral infections such as the measles, herpes or mumps
Certain prescription drugs
Having an autoimmune disease, including lupus or vasculitis
Certain vitamin deficiencies
Some people are more at risk for developing this condition than are others. Most of these risk factors are associated with the development of serious autoimmune conditions and include:
Being female-Women are stricken with this condition at a rate highly disproportionate to that of men, with a ratio of 3:1.
Age-People aged 20-40 years old are most likely to develop this condition.
Race-Caucasians experience swelling of the optic nerve much more often than do people of other races.
Genetics-Certain genes and mutations can cause a predisposition to develop MS or other conditions that cause inflammation of the optic nerve.
Luckily, the outcome for those who develop inflammation of the optic nerve is positive with prompt and proper medical care. Oftentimes, the swelling is monitored by a doctor but will resolve itself. If not, patients are usually prescribed an injection of steroidal medication which reduces overall swelling.