The Spectrum - We’ve all heard that when it comes to heart attacks, time is muscle; and when it comes to stroke, time is brain. But according to Dr. Joan Eggert, hyperbaric medicine physician at Dixie Regional Medical Center, in the case of sudden blindness, time is also vision.
“Sudden loss of vision is a medical emergency. There can be permanent damage in as little as 90 minutes if the eye is deprived of oxygen,” she explained. “An ophthalmologist or optometrist should be seen emergently if sudden visual loss occurs. Specialized equipment is needed to make the correct diagnosis; medication or surgery may be required.”
Possible causes for sudden blindness may include:
- bleeding into the eye from trauma;
- detached retina;
- damage to the optic nerve;
- acute low blood pressure to the eye (ischemia);
- certain medications; and
- migraine or seizure.
One other possibility is a clot in the artery to the eye. Referred to as “retinal artery occlusion,” this condition can be compared to a “stroke” to the eye.
“Often with retinal artery occlusion, a person wakes up in the morning with sudden, painless loss of vision in part or all of one eye,” explained Eggert. “Risk factors for retinal artery occlusion are similar to those of heart attack, and include increased risk for clotting, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.” Eggert cites 28 published studies worldwide involving 476 patients. Those studies have shown that 65 percent of retinal artery occlusion patients improved with hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Its use is approved by the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society (UHMS), a complimentary accrediting body of The Joint Commission. The hyperbaric team at Dixie Regional (a UHMS accredited facility) has treated 20 patients with retinal artery occlusion since 2005, and published their findings. During treatments, patients enter a hyperbaric chamber, where they are exposed to 100 percent oxygen twice daily for an average of five two-hour sessions. “If there is a retinal artery occlusion, oxygen and hyperbaric oxygen are the only treatments that have a greater than 50 percent chance of restoring vision,” said Dr. Eggert. “Treatments are most effective if they begin within six hours of visual loss, with better than 75 percent chance of getting some vision back.” Eggert strongly urges anyone experiencing sudden blindness to see an eye physician immediately, no matter what the suspected cause.
“Do not think, ‘Oh I’ll just lie down and see if it will go away.’ Get to an eye doctor emergently if you have sudden loss of vision, trauma to the eye, sudden severe eye pain, or if you appear to have a serious infection, including shingles near the eye,” she said. Regular healthcare visits, including yearly eye examinations, can reduce your risk factors for visual problems.