Vision Distortion

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Introduction

What is vision distortion?

Vision distortion is any type of impairment in your ability to see. Within the eye there are many elements that work together with the nervous system and the eye muscles to create vision. Light flows through the cornea and the pupil of the globe (eyeball) onto the lens before it is projected onto the retina in the back of the eye. The retina transforms light into electrical impulses that can be transmitted by the optic nerve to the brain. The eyes are protected by the bones of the orbit and move through the actions of the eye muscles, which are controlled by nerves.

There are many different types of vision distortion, which may affect one or both eyes and occur in part or all of your visual field. Types of vision distortion include:

  • Blindness

  • Blind spots or black spots

  • Blurry or cloudy vision

  • Distortion of shapes (such as when straight lines appear wavy)

  • Double vision

  • Flashes of light

  • Floaters

  • Halos

  • Impaired depth perception

  • Loss of peripheral vision

  • Poor nighttime vision

  • Sensitivity to light

A variety of mild to serious diseases, disorders and conditions originating in the eye, the head, or elsewhere in the body can lead to vision distortion. Vision distortion can also result from infection, inflammation, trauma, malignancy (cancer), and other abnormal processes including head injury, temporal arteritis, stroke, and certain medications. Depending on the underlying cause, vision distortion may be temporary, intermittent, long lasting, or permanent.

The most common causes of vision distortion are refractive errors, such as farsightedness and nearsightedness, which are types of blurry vision caused by irregularly shaped corneas. People tend to be born with refractive errors or develop them through the aging process. If you experience blurry vision for either near or far objects, it is important to visit your licensed health care provider to discuss your treatment options. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 11 million people ages 12 and older in the United States could improve their vision with refractive error correction (Source: CDC).

Certain types of vision distortion can indicate a serious condition or medical emergency that can lead to total loss of sight. Conditions of the eye itself include glaucoma, eye injury, and retinal detachment. Vision distortion can also result from serious conditions originating outside of the eye, such as a serious head injury, transient ischemic attack (TIA), stroke, brain hemorrhage (bleeding), and epilepsy.

In some cases, the underlying causes of vision distortion can cause serious complications, including permanent blindness. Seek prompt and regular eye care throughout your life to reduce the risk of serious complications of conditions that affect the eyes and to best preserve your vision.

Vision distortion can also be caused by very serious or life-threatening diseases and conditions, such as head injury, brain tumor, psychosis, ingestion of a toxic plant, or stroke. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have had a head injury or experience symptoms of these conditions, including sudden vision change or distortion, sudden, severe headache, stiff neck, confusion or disorientation, slurred speech, inability to move a part of the body, passing out, or hallucinations.

Symptoms

What other symptoms might occur with vision distortion?

You may experience other symptoms that affect the eye in addition to distortion of your vision. These symptoms will vary depending on the underlying cause. For example, you may experience eye pain and red eyes in acute angle-closure glaucoma, caused by rapidly rising pressure within the eye. Eye infection symptoms may include vision distortion accompanied by discharge from the eye, eye redness, and swollen eyelids. Eye cancer symptoms may include blurry vision, a growing dark spot on the iris, and a change in the position of the eyeball.

Vision distortion may accompany symptoms that affect other body systems, such as the nervous and immune systems. For example, vision distortion due to a stroke may occur along with slurred speech, difficulty understanding speech, and facial droop. Blurred vision occurring with eye pain and joint pain and stiffness may indicate an autoimmune disorder.

Other eye symptoms that may occur with vision distortion

Underlying diseases, disorders and conditions that cause vision distortion frequently cause additional eye symptoms. These symptoms can include:

  • Bleeding from the eye

  • Discharge from the eye

  • Droopy eyelid

Other symptoms that may occur with vision distortion

Distorted vision may occur with symptoms related to other body systems. Symptoms may include:

  • Abnormal gait
  • Butterfly-shaped rash over bridge of nose and cheeks
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Drooping eyelids
  • Headache
  • Joint pain
  • Tremor
  • Trouble concentrating

Symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition

In some cases, certain types of visual distortions or disturbances may indicate a serious or life-threatening condition, such as a head injury, brain tumor, retinal detachment, psychosis, ingestion of a toxic plant, or stroke that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have had a head injury or eye injury, or have distorted vision with any of the following symptoms:

  • Abnormal pupil size or nonreactivity to light
  • Change in mental status or level of consciousness, such as lethargy, decreased responsiveness, passing out, disorientation, or confusion

  • Difficulty speaking or understanding speech

  • Facial drooping

  • Paralysis or difficulty moving any part of the body

  • Seizure

  • Severe headache

  • Stiff neck

  • Sudden change in vision, loss of vision, or vision distortion, such as seeing halos around lights or having blind spots

  • Sudden memory loss

  • Sudden numbness or weakness

  • Symptoms of psychosis or toxic ingestion, such as delirium, paranoia, delusions, hallucinations, or suicidal thoughts

Causes

What causes vision distortion?

Vision distortion can be due to problems or conditions of the eye itself, as well as neurological and autoimmune disorders.

Optical causes of vision distortion

Vision distortion can be caused by several kinds of common eye and vision problems including:

  • Astigmatism (distortion of details both close and distant due to the unequal curvature of the surface of the eye)

  • Dry eyes

  • Eye irritation

  • Farsightedness (hyperopia, when eyes focus better on distant objects than near objects)

  • Nearsightedness (myopia, when eyes focus better on near objects than distant objects)

  • Presbyopia (a normal, gradual loss of your eyes’ ability to focus on near objects due to aging)

  • Wrong prescription for eyeglasses or contact lenses

Eye diseases and conditions that cause vision distortion

Several different diseases, disorders and conditions originating in the eye can cause vision distortion including:

  • Cataracts (clouding of the lens, which blurs and distorts vision)
  • Corneal edema (swelling and clouding of the normally transparent cornea)
  • Corneal ulcer
  • Eye cancer
  • Eye injury (any trauma or exposure of substances that damage the eye)
  • Glaucoma (condition in which fluid pressure builds up in the eye, including open-angle glaucoma and acute angle-closure glaucoma)
  • Macular edema (fluid accumulating within the layers of the retina)
  • Optic neuritis (inflammation of the optic nerve)
  • Retinal detachment (detachment of the light-sensing retina from the blood vessels that provide it oxygen and nutrients)
  • Retinopathy and diabetic lens osmosis (complications of diabetes)
  • Vitreous traction (epiretinal membrane, macular hole)
  • Uveitis and iritis (inflammation of the uvea)

Other causes of vision distortion

Various other diseases, disorders and conditions that cause vision distortion include:

  • Certain medications
  • Exposure to toxic substances or poisons
  • Ingestion of illicit drugs, including LSD, amphetamines and mescaline
  • Multiple sclerosis (inflammatory disease that affects the brain and spinal cord)
  • Radiation exposure to the eyes, optic nerve, or the brain
  • Sarcoidosis (inflammation that causes tiny lumps of cells to grow in various organs including the eyes)
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (disorder in which the body attacks its own healthy cells and tissues)
  • Temporal arteritis (inflammation of blood vessels that supply the eyes, optic nerves, and other areas of the head)
  • Transient ischemic attack (TIA)

Life-threatening causes of vision distortion

In some cases, vision distortion may be a sign of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

  • Brain hemorrhage (bleeding)
  • Encephalitis (inflammation and swelling of the brain due to a viral infection or other causes)
  • Head injury, such as concussion or brain hemorrhage
  • Ingestion of certain toxic plants, such as deadly nightshade, mandrake and henbane
  • Orbital cellulitis (acute infection of the area surrounding the eye)
  • Psychosis
  • Retinal artery blockage due to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)
  • Stroke or atherosclerotic emboli (plaque that travels to the brain can cause a stroke)
  • Vertebrobasilar insufficiency

What are the potential complications of vision distortion?

Complications associated with vision distortion vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Complications of some untreated or poorly controlled diseases can be serious and fatal. For example, a delay in treating glaucoma can lead to loss of sight, and a delay in treating a brain hemorrhage can cause severe disability or death. Stroke can lead to permanent neurological damage, long-term immobility, and disability.

Underlying causes of vision distortion can lead to serious complications including:

  • Adverse effects of treatment
  • Chronic eye pain or discomfort
  • Coma
  • Loss of sight (blindness)
  • Loss of the eye and orbit (bony part surrounding the eye globe)
  • Permanent brain and nervous system damage from such conditions as multiple sclerosis, encephalitis, brain tumor, stroke, or brain hemorrhage. This can include permanent difficulties with walking, talking, understanding speech, movement, and memory.
  • Progression of symptoms
  • Spread of cancer
  • Spread of infection
  • Wasting and permanent deformities of the arms or legs (contractures) due to deceased mobility of the limbs
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Jan 4
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  3. Diseases & Conditions. American Academy of Ophthalmology. http://www.geteyesmart.org/eyesmart/diseases/index.cfm
  4. Vision problems. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003029.htm
  5. Lim LS, Mitchell P, Seddon JM, et al. Age-related macular degeneration. Lancet 2012; 379:1728.
  6. Daien V, Pérès K, Villain M, et al. Visual impairment, optical correction, and their impact on activity limitations in elderly persons: the POLA study. Arch Intern Med 2011; 171:1206.
  7. Agarwal A, Kumar DA. Cost-effectiveness of cataract surgery. Curr Opin Ophthalmol 2011; 22:15.
  8. Collins RD. Differential Diagnosis in Primary Care, 5th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2012.
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