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The Link Between Optic Neuritis and Multiple Sclerosis

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About 10 years ago, I had a bout of Optic Neuritis (ON). I’ve worn glasses since my fourth birthday and have a long history of eye problems so I have always given my eyes “special” attention and care. Needless to say, the ON episode caught me totally off guard.

I had never even heard of ON. Just what was this and why was it interfering in my life? Inquiring minds (mine) wanted to know and I set on a journey to find out.

Optic Neuritis is pretty much what it sounds like – an inflammation of the optic nerve. Symptoms include:

• Pain – In my case, the pain was extraordinary. It was a sharp, knife-like pain centered behind my left eye. I’d suffered previously from migraine headaches, and because of the pain intensity, my first thought was that I was experiencing a migraine. I can’t speak for others but the pain level was not fun.

• Vision Loss – Since vision disturbances are not uncommon with migraine headaches, I was not too concerned about the initial vision changes. It was only after the pain subsided and my vision did not return to normal that alarm bells began clanging with a fury. My eyes had been stable with no changes whatsoever for over 15 years. Suddenly, I had almost no vision in my left eye. I was concerned, to say the least.

• Loss of Color Vision – Believe it or not, one of the “odd” symptoms of ON is that it changes your perception of colors, particularly the color red. I did not even realize that my color vision had been impacted until my neurologist held up a red card and had me look at it first with my right eye and then left eye. Imagine my surprise when my right eye saw a different shade of red than I saw with my left eye. Go figure. I have since learned that sometimes what I think is red, is really some other color entirely. I can’t exactly say what color because I “see” red (no pun intended) while others are seeing something completely different.

Although they can be permanent, the symptoms are generally temporary. If that is the case, why is ON so concerning? Why should red flags wave furiously if you have an episode of ON? Optic Neuritis is concerning for the reasons you get ON.

Imagine for a moment that your nerves are an electrical wire covered by insulation. If you strip away the insulation from an electrical wire, you cause the wire to short-circuit. This short circuit may result in damages to your appliances, house wiring or even cause a fire. The insulation covering the nerves in our body is called myelin. Optic Neuritis is believed to be caused by an autoimmune disorder. Many believe that the auto immune disorder may be triggered or activated by a virus. This autoimmune disorder causes our own body to attack and strip away the myelin (insulation) from the optic nerve leading to the eye resulting in pain and inflammation.

Two autoimmune diseases are associated with Optic Neuritis: Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and Neuromyelitis optica. Multiple Sclerosis is a demyelinating autoimmune disease where your body attacks and strips the myelin from the nerves in your brain and spinal cord. The damaged spots in your brain where the myelin has been eaten away are called lesions and are viewable on an MRI. The type of damage resulting from these lesions all depends on where they are located.

According to the Mayo Clinic, between 15 and 20 percent of all people who have ON develop MS. In addition, if you have a brain lesion and have had ON, your risk of developing MS is three times greater than those who have a normal MRI and who have never had ON. One long-term, 15-year study indicated that 50 percent of all people who have ON develop MS. Still other studies indicate that as many as 70 percent of all people with ON eventually develop MS. When you see statistics like these, it’s time to do a double-take, perk up those ears, and pay attention.

For many, ON is the first warning sign of MS. In my case, I had been symptomatic for MS for several years but was undiagnosed. My pursuit to find the cause of ON and restore my vision led to a definitive diagnosis of MS and treatment.

If you should be diagnosed with ON, be aware that this does not mean that you will develop MS. However, it does mean that you now have a risk factor. If you have had ON, you owe it to yourself and your health to have a discussion on this topic with your doctor. Many physicians aren’t educated on this topic (which is unfortunate) so you may have to educate them.

I personally know a young woman who had ON three years ago with MRI lesions. I told her she either had MS or a strong possibility of developing it. Her doctor told her there was no link and she had nothing to worry about. She took the advice of the “expert.” He was wrong. She now has a definitive diagnosis of MS.

Unfortunately, the ensuing damage to her brain has resulted in damage which is now believed to be permanent. At age 33, she is facing the forced loss of her career, independence and mobility.

The bottom line is that this is your life, your health, and your responsibility to take charge of it. You owe it to yourself to have the discussion with your doctor regarding your risk factor if you’ve had ON. If you aren’t satisfied with the answers, get a second opinion! Girls, you’re worth it!!!

Optic Neuritis, Mayo Clinic Staff, http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/optic-neuritis/DS00882

Autoimmune T Cell Repertoire in Optic Neuritis and Multiple Sclerosis, M Soderstrom, h link, JB Sun, S Fredrikson, ZY Wang, WX Huang, Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, 1994 May; 57(5): 544-551 http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1072912

Optic Neuritis, All About Multiple Sclerosis, 21 Jan 2008, http://www.mult-sclerosis.org/opticneuritis.html

Add a Comment2 Comments


Thanks so very much for giving us some additional information on this subject. I appreciate it very much!

March 3, 2010 - 6:21pm
EmpowHER Guest

The most common type of Neuritis is the optic form of this disorder, which refers to any degeneration or inflammation in the optic nerve. It is a cause of acute vision loss and it is associated with Multiple sclerosis. When a single nerve is affected the disease is called mononeuritis and if there are more than one nerves affected the disease is called polyneuritis.

February 23, 2010 - 8:28am
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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