How MS Affects Your Vision

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Vision problems

Multiple sclerosis (MS) can damage the nerves in any part of the brain or spinal cord. This can cause symptoms in many parts of your body, including your eyes. Although each person’s symptoms are unique, nearly everyone with MS will experience some vision problems, such as blurriness, double vision, or vision loss. Like other symptoms of MS, these visual problems usually come and go. Only rarely do they result in permanent blindness.

Why MS Affects Vision

Doctors initially diagnose about half of all people with MS because of a vision problem. A flare-up of the disease may have damaged the optic nerve – the nerve that connects the eye to the brain, the nerves from the brainstem to the eye muscles, or both.

In MS, the body attacks the nerve fibers and the myelin that covers or insulates them. This damage to the nerves in the spinal cord and brain disrupts communication between the brain and other parts of the body. As a result, you can have symptoms such as muscle weakness, balance problems, numbness or tingling in the extremities, speech problems, and dizziness. When MS damages the optic nerve or the pathways that control eye movements, vision problems can result.

Two-thirds of the brain is involved in processing the images it receives through your eyes. However, MS usually affects areas of the brain that are not involved in visual processing. It’s more likely that MS will affect the optic nerve or the pathways that send signals from the brainstem to the eye muscles. These nerve pathways allow the eyes to move in unison.

Vision Problems Resulting From MS

Damage to the optic nerve can lead to a condition called optic neuritis. This inflammation of the optic nerve or damage to the myelin that covers the optic nerve can be painful. It can also cause a number of eye problems, such as blurred vision, loss of normal color vision, depth perception problems, and seeing a dark spot in the center of your visual field. In some cases, blindness may occur, typically in only one eye at a time.

Most people with optic neuritis regain normal sight. In some cases, vision quality may be reduced, with less color or depth perception. Several bouts of optic neuritis can decrease vision quality over time. That's why it's important to notify your doctor promptly if you suspect your MS has relapsed.

Damage to the pathways that control eye movements can cause the eye muscles to move in an uncoordinated way. If the eyes do not work together properly and move in unison, it can affect your vision. Damage to these pathways from the brainstem to the eye muscles can also lead to nystagmus.  Nystagmus is involuntary or uncontrolled movements of one or both eyes. This condition impairs vision in a number of ways, including horizontal or vertical "wiggling." It can also result in dizziness or a loss of balance.

In other cases, you might notice that one eye muscle is weaker than the other. If you have weakness in one or both eye muscles, you can have double vision – or diplopia – because your eyes are not aligning properly.

Involuntary eye movements can be subtle and hard to identify, but in more extreme cases, they can be very noticeable. You may experience visual confusion, reading fatigue, and loss of depth perception.

How Vision Problems Are Treated

Optic neuritis and other vision problems with MS almost always resolve on their own and require no treatment. There is a healing process that takes place after MS damages the myelin that covers nerve fibers. Although your vision will improve in most cases, you might have a relapse or a worsening of your vision problems.

Your doctor may prescribe IV and oral corticosteroids to help treat certain vision problems related to MS. If you have double vision, an ophthalmologist might prescribe prisms, an eye patch, or lenses to improve visual acuity.

Try to avoid triggers that can worsen double vision, such as stress, fatigue, or overuse of the eyes. High temperatures can also trigger episodes of optic neuritis.

By taking the following steps, you can help prevent your visual MS symptoms from getting worse:

  • Don't read or work at a computer for long periods of time without taking a break.

  • Periodically rest your eyes during the day.

  • Get adequate sleep.

  • Use ice packs, over-the-counter fever reducers, cool drinks, air conditioning, or a soak in a cool bath to cool off if you have a fever or after a hot shower or exercise.

Key Takeaways

  • Although symptoms of MS vary from person to person, it's likely that you'll experience some vision problems.

  • If MS damages the optic nerve or the cable that connects the eye to the brain, it can affect your vision.

  • You may have MS-related vision problems, such as pain, blurred vision, loss of normal color vision, and issues with depth perception. MS can also affect your eye muscles, resulting in uncontrolled eye movements and double vision.

  • Notify your ophthalmologist immediately if you experience new or recurrent visual symptoms. Rapid treatment may help preserve essential myelin along the visual pathway. Ask your doctor if corticosteroids could help.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Feb 1
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

  1. Multiple Sclerosis. National Institutes of Health.

  2. Optic Neuritis and MS. Multiple Sclerosis Foundation.

  3. Eye Movement Abnormalities in MS. Multiple Sclerosis Foundation.

  4. Vision Problems. National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

  5. Multiple Sclerosis: Hope Through Research. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

  6. NINDS Multiple Sclerosis Information Page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.