Head Injuries Can Lead to Serious Vision Problems
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 1.4 million Americans suffer and are treated for a traumatic brain injury every year, a serious event that can create problems with normal brain functioning. Even more people suffer head injuries but don’t seek medical attention; luckily, most of these traumatic brain injuries are mild, such as a concussion.
Eye and vision problems are fairly common after a brain injury. Some vision problems can be due to trauma to the eye, says Majid Moshirfar, MD, an ophthalmologist at the Moran Eye Center at the University of Utah. But many other vision problems are actually caused by injury to your brain.
If you have suffered a head injury — even a mild one — it’s important to see a doctor who can make sure that your eyes and brain are still working properly and that there are no vision problems that could show up later.
Even mild head injuries, such as whiplash from a minor auto accident, can cause vision problems, Moshirfar says. The symptoms are varied. You may, for instance, have trouble focusing your eyes when switching your gaze between near and far objects. You may see double. Or you may feel nauseous or vomit when you shift your gaze around. After relatively minor trauma, people can also experience headaches or sensitivity to light, and words on a page may appear to move.
Head Injuries and Vision Problems
More serious vision problems can also result from a blow to the head or other head injury. These can include:
- Retinal detachment. Your retina is a thin layer of tissue lining the inside of the back of your eye. Its role is to help turn the images entering your eye into signals that go to the brain through the optic nerve. “I’ve seen patients who have a head injury and they bleed into the retina and have retinal detachment in both eyes,” Dr. Moshirfar says. “That’s a very serious problem requiring surgical intervention.” In a retinal detachment, the retina comes loose — an issue that can potentially cause permanent blindness. Doctors may be able to reattach the retina, but it’s imperative that you seek treatment quickly.
- Vitreous hemorrhage. Each of your eyes contain a clear, jellylike substance called the vitreous humor. Light entering your pupil (the black spot in the center of your eye) passes through the vitreous before striking the retina. Head injuries can cause blood vessels in your eye to bleed into the vitreous. Though these injuries can be quite problematic at first, Moshirfar says, most vitreous hemorrhages clear up over time with minimal problems, although some people require medication to speed their recovery and avoid further vision problems.
- Optic nerve damage. Head injuries also have the potential to cause increased pressure within the skull. This in turn puts pressure on your optic nerves, which carry messages from the eyes to the brain. This pressure can “choke” the optic nerves, cutting off blood circulation. The damage to the nerves can be severe, Moshirfar says. The resulting problems can cause vision loss severe enough to lead to complete blindness.
If you’ve suffered any kind of injury to the head that has resulted in changes in vision, getting prompt treatment is critical. “Patients who have even subtle changes in their vision — such as fluctuation in their vision, double vision, or difficulty focusing at near and distant objects — need to be examined by an eye-care specialist or neurologist,” Moshirfar advises.
Bottom Line on Head Injuries and Eye Problems
If you’ve had any kind of head injury and you are having eye symptoms, don’t wait. Get in to see a specialist who can provide the right diagnosis and develop a treatment plan that works for you.
By Eric Metcalf, MPH | Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MS, MPH