Optic Atrophy

Optic atrophy refers to damage to your optic nerve, which carries impulses from your eye to your brain. Optic atrophy can lead to permanent vision loss. Possible causes include infections, inflammation and lack of blood flow. Providers can treat the causes, which can help to stop the progression of the disease.


What is optic atrophy?

Optic atrophy is a condition that affects the cells of your optic nerve, which carries impulses from your eye to your brain. “Atrophy” means to waste away or deteriorate. Optic nerve atrophy is another name for optic atrophy, and it’s a serious condition.

Atrophy of the optic nerve is a condition that happens because of long-term damage to optic nerve fibers from many different causes. Optic atrophy can cause irreversible issues with vision, including blindness.


Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Symptoms and Causes

What are the symptoms of optic atrophy?

Optic atrophy symptoms relate to changes in vision, including:

What causes optic atrophy?

Nerve fibers that transmit impulses to your brain make up your optic nerve. In the case of optic atrophy, something is interfering with your optic nerve’s ability to transmit these impulses. Many factors can cause this interference, including:

  • Lack of proper blood flow (vascular/ischemia): This is the most common cause of optic nerve atrophy.
  • Conditions that you’re born with or inherit (congenital): One condition, Leber hereditary optic neuropathy, causes you to lose vision in one eye first and then the other.
  • Pressure from outside (extrinsic compression) and inside the nerve (intrinsic compression): The pressure can come from tumors. Glaucoma can damage your optic nerve and sometimes includes high eye pressure (intraocular pressure).
  • Damage from inflammation, either from other diseases or swelling in the optic nerve itself: One cause is optic neuritis, which is inflammation of your optic nerve. Another is hydrocephalus, or fluid collection in your brain.
  • Damage from infections: These infections can include diseases like syphilis and measles.
  • Trauma (eye injury): Eye injuries can happen in many ways, including industrial or car accidents, sports or fighting.
  • Damage from diseases of the retina: Retinal diseases include diabetes-related retinopathy and retinal vein occlusion.
  • Damage from toxins, nutritional deficits or medications:Optic nerve atrophy from these causes usually affects both eyes.

Is optic atrophy contagious?

You can’t catch optic atrophy from anyone, but many types of infections can cause the condition. These infections include:


What are the complications of optic atrophy?

Optic atrophy can’t be reversed. The major complication is loss of vision, or blindness.

Diagnosis and Tests

How is optic atrophy diagnosed?

It’s important to see an eye care specialist if you have any vision issues. They’ll begin by asking questions about your symptoms and your medical history. They may ask about what you eat, drink and what drugs or medications you take, including supplements. Then, they’ll do an eye exam.

What tests will be done to diagnose optic atrophy?

During testing, your provider will use an ophthalmoscope to look at your eyes. With optic atrophy, there are cell changes that providers can see, along with a paleness to your optic disc. The lack of color is related to blood flow changes in optic atrophy.

Your provider, who may also be looking for things like multiple sclerosis or tumors, may rely on other tests like these:


Management and Treatment

How is optic atrophy treated?

There’s no real cure or treatment for optic atrophy. This is why it’s so important to have regular eye exams and to see your healthcare provider right away for vision changes.

Your provider will need to treat the cause of the optic atrophy to stop the condition from getting worse. For instance, they may need to remove a tumor or remove fluid from your brain and spinal cord.


Can optic atrophy be prevented?

In most cases, you can’t prevent optic atrophy. You may be able to decrease your risk in some cases. For instance, you can:

  • Wear safety goggles to prevent eye injuries.
  • Get necessary vaccines to prevent infections when possible.
  • Practice safe sex to avoid sexually transmitted infections.

Outlook / Prognosis

What can I expect if I have optic atrophy?

The outlook for people with optic atrophy depends on what’s causing the issue. If the cause is optic neuritis, you can usually count on eventually getting your vision back when the inflammation goes away. If the cause is some other optic neuropathy, your vision might not improve.

If you have glaucoma, early diagnosis can lead to successful treatment and slower growth of optic atrophy. Early diagnosis of a tumor can lead to prompt treatment and better outcomes. This can relieve the pressure on your optic nerve and prevent further damage.

If your sight worsens, ask your provider about ways to cope with low vision. There are low-vision aids like special lenses and magnifying glasses. There are also non-optical materials, like text-reading software.

Living With

When should I see my healthcare provider about optic atrophy?

You should see a provider for regular eye exams, especially if you have any type of eye-related conditions. You should consult a provider if you have any changes in your vision, like blurry vision, or difficulties with color vision or with peripheral vision.

If you have a sudden loss of vision or extreme eye pain, call your provider or get immediate medical help. These can be symptoms of serious eye conditions.

What questions should I ask my doctor about optic atrophy?

You likely have many questions for your healthcare provider. You may want to ask a friend or family member to come to an appointment with you. And you may want to bring a list of questions and a notebook to record the answers.

These are some questions you might want your provider to answer:

  • What’s causing optic atrophy?
  • What options do I have for treating the cause of optic atrophy?
  • What are the side effects of these treatments?
  • Is this condition hereditary?
  • Is genetic testing right for my family members?
  • Am I eligible to participate in any clinical trials?
  • Can you put me in touch with a support group for optic atrophy or its causes?
  • Can you recommend low-vision aids?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

If you’re at risk of optic nerve damage, eye care appointments are very important. Optic nerve atrophy can lead to vision loss, which can cause changes to how you live. Your providers are your partners in getting and staying healthy. While optic atrophy is a serious condition, there are ways that you can get the help that you may need.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 07/14/2023.

Learn more about our editorial process.

Appointments 216.444.2020