Optic Atrophy


What is optic atrophy?

Optic atrophy is a condition that affects the optic nerve, which carries impulses from the eye to the brain. (Atrophy means to waste away or deteriorate.)

Optic atrophy is not a disease, but rather a sign of a potentially more serious condition. Optic atrophy results from damage to the optic nerve from many different kinds of pathologies. The condition can cause problems with vision, including blindness.

Symptoms and Causes

What causes optic atrophy?

The optic nerve is composed of nerve fibers that transmit impulses to the brain. In the case of optic atrophy, something is interfering with the optic nerve's ability to transmit these impulses. The interference can be caused by numerous factors, including:

  • Glaucoma.
  • Stroke of the optic nerve, known as anterior ischemic optic neuropathy.
  • A tumor that is pressing on the optic nerve.
  • Optic neuritis, an inflammation (swelling) of the optic nerve caused by multiple sclerosis.
  • A hereditary condition in which the person experiences loss of vision first in one eye, and then in the other (known as Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy).
  • Improper formation of the optic nerve, which is a congenital problem (the person is born with it).

What are the symptoms of optic atrophy?

The symptoms of optic atrophy relate to a change in vision, specifically:

  • Blurred vision.
  • Difficulties with peripheral (side) vision.
  • Difficulties with color vision.
  • A reduction in sharpness of vision.

Diagnosis and Tests

How is optic atrophy diagnosed?

It's important to see your ophthalmologist if you experience any problems with your vision, especially those listed above.

If your ophthalmologist suspects optic atrophy, he or she will examine your eyes with an instrument called an ophthalmoscope. The doctor will look at the optic disc, the point at the back of the eye where the optic nerve enters. In optic atrophy, the optic disc will be pale because of a change in the flow in the blood vessels.

The ophthalmologist may also perform other tests to measure your vision and peripheral and color vision. If the ophthalmologist suspects a tumor or multiple sclerosis, you may undergo a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test.

Management and Treatment

How is optic atrophy treated?

There is no real cure or treatment for optic atrophy. Therefore, it's important to have regular eye exams (especially if you have a family history of eye diseases), and to see your ophthalmologist immediately if you have any changes in your vision.

Care at Cleveland Clinic

Outlook / Prognosis

What is the outlook for people with optic atrophy?

The outlook for people with optic atrophy depends on what is causing the problem. If the cause is optic neuritis, the patient can usually count on eventually getting his or her vision back when the inflammation goes away. If the cause is some other optic neuropathy, the patient's vision might not improve.

If glaucoma is diagnosed early, it can be successfully treated and the optic atrophy will grow more slowly. Likewise, a tumor that is caught early can usually be treated in order to relieve the pressure on the optic nerve and prevent further damage.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/10/2015.


  • National Institutes of Health. Genetics Home Reference. Leber hereditary optic neuropathy (http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/leber-hereditary-optic-neuropathy) Accessed 3/18/2015.

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