Symptoms to Diagnosis

Acute monocular vision loss: Don’t lose sight of the differential

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An 83-year-old man presented to the emergency department with acute, painless loss of vision in his left eye. His vision in that eye had been normal in the middle of the night when he woke to use the restroom, but on awakening 6 hours later he could perceive only light or darkness.

He denied headache, scalp tenderness, jaw claudication, fever, weight loss, myalgia, or other neurologic symptoms. He had not experienced any recent change in his vision before this presentation, including halos around lights, floaters, eye pain, or redness. However, 6 months ago he had undergone left cataract surgery (left phacoemulsification with intraocular implant) without complications. And he said that when he was 3 years old, he had sustained a serious injury to his right eye.

His medical history included ischemic heart disease and hypertension. His medications included losartan, furosemide, amlodi­pine, atorvastatin, and aspirin.


1. Which of the following is the least likely cause of this patient’s acute monocular vision loss?

  • Optic neuritis
  • Retinal vein occlusion
  • Retinal artery occlusion
  • Pituitary apoplexy
  • Retinal detachment

Acute vision loss is often so distressing to the patient that the emergency department may be the first step in evaluation. While its diagnosis and management often require an interdisciplinary effort, early evaluation and triage of this potential medical emergency is often done by clinicians without specialized training in ophthalmology.

The physiology of vision is complex and the list of possible causes of vision loss is long, but the differential diagnosis can be narrowed quickly by considering the time course of vision loss and the anatomic localization.1

The time course (including onset and tempo) of vision loss can classified as:

  • Transient (ie, vision returned to normal by the time seen by clinician)
  • Acute (instantaneous onset, ie, within seconds to minutes)
  • Subacute (progression over days to weeks)
  • Chronic (insidious progression over months to years).

Although acute vision loss is usually dramatic, insidious vision loss may occasionally be unnoticed for a surprisingly long time until the normal eye is inadvertently shielded.

Common causes of nonocular vision loss

Figure 1. Common causes of monocular vision loss can arise in the media (cornea, anterior chamber, or lens), retina, or optic nerve.

Anatomic localization. Lesions anterior to the optic chiasm cause monocular vision loss, whereas lesions at or posterior to the chiasm lead to bilateral visual field defects. Problems leading to monocular blindness can be broadly divided into 3 anatomic categories (Figure 1):

  • Ocular medial (including the cornea, anterior chamber, and lens)
  • Retinal
  • Neurologic (including the optic nerve and chiasm).

Clues from the history

Acute monocular vision loss: Diagnositc clues from the history

A careful ophthalmic history is an essential initial step in the evaluation (Table 1). In addition, nonvisual symptoms can help narrow the differential diagnosis.

Nausea and vomiting often accompany acute elevation of intraocular pressure.

Focal neurologic deficits or other neurologic symptoms can point to a demyelinating disease such as multiple sclerosis.

Risk factors for vascular atherosclerotic disease such as diabetes, hypertension, and coronary artery disease raise concern for retinal, optic nerve, or cerebral ischemia.

Medications with anticholinergic and adrenergic properties can also precipitate monocular vision loss with acute angle-closure glaucoma.

Can we rule out anything yet?

Our patient presented with painless monocular vision loss. As discussed, causes of monocular vision loss can be localized to ocular abnormalities and prechiasmatic neurologic ones. Retinal detachment, occlusion of a retinal artery or vein, and optic neuritis are all important potential causes of acute monocular vision loss.

Pituitary apoplexy, on the other hand, is characterized by an acute increase in pituitary volume, often leading to compression of the optic chiasm resulting in a visual-field defect. It is most often characterized by binocular deficits (eg, bitemporal hemianopia) but is less likely to cause monocular vision loss.1


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