Symptoms to Diagnosis

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

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4. Management of nonarteritic central retinal artery occlusion could include all of the following except which one?

  • Ocular massage
  • Intravenous thrombolysis
  • Intra-arterial thrombolysis
  • Risk-factor modification
  • Intraocular steroid injection

In patients with acute vision loss from nonarteritic central retinal artery occlusion, acute strategies to restore retinal perfusion include noninvasive “standard” therapies and thrombolysis (intravenous or intra-arterial). Unfortunately, consensus and guidelines are lacking.

Traditional therapies include sublingual isosorbide dinitrate, systemic pentoxifylline, inhalation of a carbogen, hyperbaric oxygen, ocular massage, intravenous acetazolamide and mannitol, anterior chamber paracentesis, and systemic steroids. However, none of these have been shown to be more effective than placebo.16

Thrombolytic therapy, analogous to the treatment of patients with ischemic stroke or myocardial infarction, is more controversial in acute central retinal artery occlusion.13 Data from small case-series suggested that intra-arterial or intravenous thrombolysis might improve visual acuity with reasonable safety.17 On the other hand, a randomized study from the United Kingdom that compared intra-arterial thrombolysis within a 24-hour window and conservative measures concluded that thrombolysis should not be used.18

Thrombolysis is thus used only in selected patients on a case-specific basis with involvement of a multispecialty team including stroke neurologists, especially if patients present within hours of onset and have concomitant neurologic symptoms.

Treatment beyond the acute phase focuses on preventing complications of the eye ischemia and aggressively managing systemic atherosclerotic risk factors to decrease the incidence of further ischemic events. Other interventions include endarterectomy for significant carotid stenosis and anticoagulation to prevent cardioembolic embolization (such as atrial fibrillation). Most experts agree on the addition of an antiplatelet agent.13,19

Intraocular steroid injection can be used in the management of some retinal disorders but has no value in nonarteritic central retinal artery occlusion.

Vision recovery in nonarteritic central retinal artery occlusion is variable, but the prognosis is generally poor. The visual acuity on presentation, the onset of the symptoms, and collateral vessels are major factors influencing long-term recovery. Most of the recovery occurs within 7 days and involves peripheral vision rather than central vision. Several studies report some recovery in peripheral vision in approximately 30% to 35% of affected eyes.20–22


Vision loss is a common presenting symptom in the emergency setting. A meticulous history and systematic physical examination can narrow the differential diagnosis of this neuro-ophthalmologic emergency. Acute retinal ischemia from central retinal artery occlusion is the ocular equivalent of an ischemic stroke, and they share risk factors, diagnostic workup, and management approaches.

Both etiologic subtypes (ie, arteritic and nonarteritic) require prompt intervention by front-line physicians. If giant cell arteritis is suspected, corticosteroid therapy must be initiated to save the contralateral retina from ischemia. Suspicion of central retinal artery occlusion warrants immediate evaluation by a neurologist to consider thrombolysis. Prompt action and interdisciplinary care involving an ophthalmologist, neurologist, and emergency or internal medicine physician may save a patient from permanent visual disability.


  • Monocular vision loss requires urgent evaluation with a multidisciplinary management approach.
  • There are no consensus treatment guidelines for nonarteritic central retinal artery occlusion, but the workup includes a comprehensive stroke evaluation.
  • Arteritic central retinal artery occlusion is most often due to giant cell arteritis, and when it is suspected, the patient should be empirically treated with steroids.

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