Boost your eye-Q
Most people with multiple sclerosis experience vision problems. Here are ways to help protect your peepers.
by Aviva Patz
Matt Cavallo of Phoenix, Arizona, was walking his dog one cold February morning when he noticed a black speck in his right field of vision. Over the next 24 hours, the speck ballooned, nearly blocking his sight. Even dim light caused searing pain, as did the slightest eye movement. On the way to his doctor’s office, Cavallo taped business cards to his sunglasses. “I felt like a vampire being exposed to light,” says Cavallo, who had been diagnosed a year earlier with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. “I had to cringe and hide and protect myself.”
The diagnosis: optic neuritis, one of several common visual disturbances affecting people with MS. “In the course of living with multiple sclerosis, 80% to 90% of people will have some sort of visual issue along the way,” explains Georgetown neurology professor Robert K. Shin, MD, director of the Georgetown Multiple Sclerosis and Neuroimmunology Center. A vision problem may be the first symptom that leads to an MS diagnosis.
Like other MS-related flare-ups, vision problems often clear up over time, though it’s not uncommon to experience residual effects. Cavallo, for example, still sees “squiggles” coming off lights at night. Fortunately, there are tips, tricks and tools to help you manage these symptoms. Here’s what you need to know.
Daily activities could be making it worse
Although vision often returns after these episodes, people with MS “may be left with some kind of visual dysfunction,” says Padmaja Sudhakar, MD, associate professor of neurology and ophthalmology at the University of Kentucky. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, deficits can include diminished contrast — especially in low light — less color saturation, poor depth perception and dimming or blurring vision when fatigued or overheated.
One everyday activity that can worsen residual eye effects in people with MS is staring at a computer screen or smartphone, as many of us do. The culprit is eye strain. And while it won’t damage your eyes, Shin says, it can make existing symptoms feel worse.
What doesn’t help
Sudhakar suggests avoiding hot showers or exercise with extreme changes in temperature that can cause vision to fluctuate, especially after optic neuritis. “This is called ‘Uthoff’s phenomenon,’” she says. “It doesn’t mean you have another attack of vision loss. You should just have that awareness and avoid these circumstances to the extent possible.”
Ultimately, you don’t want visual issues to limit your activities or dampen your quality of life. “Most individuals with MS should not experience disability related to visual issues,” Shin says. “You don’t need to change your behavior or be afraid of activity.”
Work with your healthcare provider to deal with existing symptoms, Shin adds, and see a specialist to find the strategies and aids that will help maintain your eye health and vision over time.