Symptoms to Diagnosis

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

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On examination, the patient appeared comfortable. His temperature was 97.6°F (36.4°C), pulse 59 beats per minute, respiratory rate 18 per minute, and blood pressure 153/56 mm Hg.

Heart and lung examinations were notable for a grade 3 of 6 midsystolic, low-pitched murmur in the aortic area radiating to the neck, bilateral carotid bruits, and clear lungs. The cardiac impulse was normal in location and character. There was no evidence of aortic insufficiency (including auscultation during exhalation phase while sitting upright).

Eye examination. Visual acuity in the right eye was 20/200 with correction (owing to his eye injury at age 3). With the left eye, he could see only light or darkness. The conjunctiva and sclera were normal.

The right pupil was irregular and measured 3 mm (baseline from his previous eye injury). The left pupil was 3.5 mm. The direct pupillary response was preserved, but a relative afferent pupillary defect was present: on the swinging flashlight test, the left pupil dilated when the flashlight was passed from the right to the left pupil. Extraocular movements were full and intact bilaterally. The rest of the neurologic examination was normal.

The patient's funduscopic examination

Figure 2. The patient’s funduscopic examination revealed a cherry red spot (arrow), a characteristic finding in central retinal artery occlusion.

An ophthalmologist was urgently consulted. A dilated funduscopic examination of the left eye revealed peripapillary atrophy, tortuous vessels, a cherry red macular spot, and flame hemorrhages, but no disc edema or pallor (Figure 2).


2. Which of the following investigations would be least useful and not indicated at this point for this patient?

  • Carotid ultrasonography
  • Electrocardiography and echocardiography
  • Magnetic resonance angiography of the brain
  • Computed tomographic (CT) angiography of the head and neck
  • Testing for the factor V Leiden and prothrombin gene mutations
Key physical examination features in monocular vission loss

A systematic ocular physical examination can offer important diagnostic information (Table 2). Ophthalmoscopy directly examines the optic disc, macula, and retinal vasculature. To interpret the funduscopic examination, we need a basic understanding of the vascular supply to the eye (Figure 3).

Vascular supply to the eye Information from references 4 and 5.

Figure 3. Vascular supply to the eye. The internal carotid artery’s first major branch is the ophthalmic artery. Four major vessels break off from the ophthalmic artery: Central retinal artery: large-diameter vessel that supplies the retina (vulnerable to embolic disease); short and long posterior ciliary arteries: small vessels that supply the optic nerve and macula (susceptible to small-vessel disease); anterior ciliary arteries supply the iris and ciliary body.

For example, the cherry red spot within the macula in our patient is characteristic of central retinal artery occlusion and highlights the relationship between anatomy and pathophysiology. The retina’s blood supply is compromised, leading to an ischemic, white background (secondary to edema of the inner third of the retina), but the macula continues to be nourished by the posterior ciliary arteries. This contrast in color is accentuated by the underlying structures composing the fovea, which lacks the nerve fiber layer and ganglion cell layer, making the vascular bed more visible.2,3

Also in our patient, the marked reduction in visual acuity and relative afferent pupillary defect in the left eye point to unilateral optic nerve (or retinal ganglion cell) dysfunction. The findings on direct funduscopy were consistent with acute central retinal artery ischemia or occlusion. Central retinal artery occlusion can be either arteritic (due to inflammation, most often giant cell arteritis) or nonarteritic (due to atherosclerotic vascular disease).

Thus, carotid ultrasonography, electrocardiography, and transthoracic and transesophageal echocardiography are important components of the further workup. In addition, urgent brain imaging including either CT angiography or magnetic resonance angiography of the head and neck is indicated in all patients with central retinal artery occlusion.

Thrombophilia testing, including tests for the factor V Leiden and prothrombin gene mutations, is indicated in specific cases when a hypercoagulable state is suggested by components of the history, physical examination, and laboratory and radiologic testing. Thrombophilia testing would be low-yield and should not be part of the first-line testing in elderly patients with several atherosclerotic risk factors, such as our patient.


Initial laboratory work showed:

  • Mild microcytic anemia
  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate 77 mm/hour (reference range 1–10)
  • C-reactive protein 4.0 mg/dL (reference range < 0.9).

The rest of the complete blood cell count and metabolic profile were unremarkable. His hemoglobin A1c value was 5.3% (reference range 4.8%–6.2%).

A neurologist was urgently consulted.

Magnetic resonance imaging of the brain without contrast revealed nonspecific white-matter disease with no evidence of ischemic stroke.

Magnetic resonance angiography of the head and neck with contrast demonstrated 20% to 40% stenosis in both carotid arteries with otherwise patent anterior and posterior circulation.

Continuous monitoring of the left carotid artery with transcranial Doppler ultrasonography was also ordered, and the study concluded there were no undetected microembolic events.

Transthoracic echocardiography showed aortic sclerosis with no other abnormalities.

Ophthalmic fluorescein angiography was performed and showed patchy choroidal hypoperfusion, severe delayed filling, and extensive pruning of the arterial circulation with no involvement of the posterior ciliary arteries.

Given the elevated inflammatory markers, pulse-dose intravenous methylprednisolone was started, and a temporal artery biopsy was planned.

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