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Compressive Optic Neuropathy Clinical Presentation

  • Author: Jonathan W Kim, MD; Chief Editor: Hampton Roy, Sr, MD  more...
Updated: Nov 16, 2015


Patients with compressive optic neuropathy (CON) typically present with slowly progressive or chronic vision loss in one eye. Bilateral cases would be unusual except in systemic conditions such as Graves orbitopathy.

Visual complaints may be somewhat vague and nonspecific. Patients may complain of blurred vision, dimness of vision, or an inability to read with the affected eye. Rarely, patients with CON may present with complaints of peripheral vision loss or "tunnel vision."

The duration of the vision loss may be difficult to determine; if optic atrophy is already present, the axonal injury occurred at least 6 weeks prior to presentation.

CON may be found incidentally during a routine eye examination or refraction when a patient is documented to have unexplained visual acuity loss.

A common setting for the diagnosis of CON is following cataract surgery when the visual acuity does not improve and optic atrophy is discovered.

Rarely, patients with CON will have sudden visual loss due to an intralesional hemorrhage (eg, pituitary apoplexy).

Observant patients may complain that colors seem to be subdued and less vibrant in the affected eye.

The patient or the patient's relatives may note the development of proptosis or exophthalmos.

In rare cases, patients may complain of a transient loss of vision. This clinical scenario is typically caused by an orbital apex tumor, and the vision loss occurs only in certain positions of gaze (ie, gaze-evoked amaurosis). This presentation for CON is thought to be related to either direct pressure on the optic nerve or a temporary interruption of the blood supply by the tumor in certain positions of gaze.



Compressive optic neuropathy affects one or more clinical parameters of optic nerve function: (1) central visual acuity, (2) color vision, (3) pupillary function, and/or (4) visual field (ie, perimetry). Depending on the location of the lesion, additional clinical findings may include proptosis, strabismus, eyelid malposition, anosmia, facial numbness, or pituitary dysfunction.

Optic nerve function

Visual acuity

Visual acuity is typically reduced in the affected eye, although the deficit may be moderate. Mass lesions in the orbit compressing the globe may result in a hyperopic shift.

Color vision

Dyschromatopsia or abnormality of color vision commonly occurs in CON. The Ishihara test plate is a simple method to assess color vision in the office setting. Other testing methods for dyschromatopsia include pseudoisochromatic color plates and Farnsworth-Munsell test.

Desaturation of color hue: When a bright color (eg, red) is viewed by each eye individually, the patient will describe the color to be less vivid or washed-out in the eye with CON.


Because CON is typically a unilateral process, examination of the pupils should reveal a relative afferent pupillary defect on the affected side (ie, Marcus Gunn pupil). However, an afferent papillary defect may not be seen if the contralateral optic nerve or retina has been damaged by an unrelated condition (eg, previous trauma).

Visual field examination

As the ganglion cell axons within the optic nerve travel toward the chiasm, the inferior and superior topographic organization from the optic disc is preserved, but the fibers serving central vision move toward the interior of the optic nerve. This arrangement of fibers within the optic nerve produces the characteristic visual field defects associated with CON.

The majority of fibers within the optic nerve are concerned with central vision. Therefore, CON almost always causes a central scotoma, usually with some peripheral constriction. Altitudinal or arcuate visual field defects mimicking glaucoma may be seen in some cases. The location of the lesion does not always correspond with the topographic location of the visual field defect; for example, a superior orbital mass may not always cause an inferior visual field defect. Enlargement of the blind spot may be noted when optic disc edema is present.

When compression of the optic nerve occurs near its junction with the optic chiasm, perimetry may demonstrate a central scotoma in one eye and a temporal visual field defect in the other eye. This combination of visual field findings suggests intracranial localization at the anterior aspect of the chiasm (ie, junctional scotoma).

Additional clinical findings


Proptosis is defined as pathologic, forward displacement of the globe in the orbit.

Formal assessment of proptosis: The distance from the lateral canthal rim to the corneal surface is measured with a Hertel exophthalmometer. Proptosis can also be assessed qualitatively by comparing the projection of the two globes with the observer positioned above the patient's forehead.

If more than 2 mm of proptosis exists, a space-occupying lesion of the orbit is suspected.

Slowly progressive proptosis is often undetected by patients and their families.

Extraocular motility

Ocular motility may be affected by orbital mass lesions, either through mechanical factors or direct compression of cranial nerves at the superior orbital fissure. However, ocular motility may also be normal if the orbital mass is moderate in size and the growth rate is slow.

Relative resistance to retropulsion of the globe: Pressing on the globes through the closed lids may reveal an asymmetric resistance to retropulsion, suggesting the presence of a space-occupying lesion in the orbit.

Dilated fundus examination

The optic disc may appear normal, edematous, or atrophic.

Disc edema is typically seen with orbital processes; it is extremely rare with lesions in the optic canal, and almost never seen with intracranial compression. Optic disc edema in CON is thought to occur from a mechanical blockage of axonal transport by the tumor or mass lesion. In clinical practice, chronic, unilateral optic disc edema is much more likely to be related to optic nerve compression than papilledema, which is almost always a bilateral process, although occasionally it is asymmetric.

If axonal damage has been present for longer than 6 weeks, optic atrophy can be detected clinically as a variable degree of optic disc pallor.

When CON causes optic atrophy, occasionally it is accompanied by optic disc "cupping". It is not known why some cases of CON are associated with an enlargement of the optic disc cup, but clinicians should be aware that rare cases of low-tension glaucoma may be due to a compressive lesion.

The combination of ipsilateral optic atrophy and contralateral disc edema is known as the Foster Kennedy syndrome. This clinical picture results from compression of one optic nerve and papilledema involving the other optic nerve from an intracranial lesion (eg, meningioma).

Fundus examination images are shown below.

A 72-year-old man with a moderate decrease in visi A 72-year-old man with a moderate decrease in vision in the left eye (20/20 right, 20/25 left). Fundus examination revealed a normal right optic nerve.
Same patient as in image above of a 72-year-old ma Same patient as in image above of a 72-year-old man with a moderate decrease in vision in the left eye (20/20 right, 20/25 left). Fundus examination revealed an atrophic left optic nerve.

Vascular abnormalities of the optic disc

CON may cause the appearance of optociliary shunt vessels, which are collateral channels connecting the retinal circulation to the choroidal circulation. These vessels become dilated when the venous return within the optic nerve becomes obstructed by a compressive force. Blood is then shunted to the choroidal circulation where it exits through the vortex veins.

The four most common causes of optic disc shunt vessels include retinal vein occlusion, optic nerve sheath meningioma, optic nerve glioma, and chronic papilledema.

The triad of optic atrophy, optociliary shunt veins (optochoroidal collaterals), and progressive visual loss was initially described in patients with optic nerve sheath meningioma (ie, Hoyt-Spencer triad).

Orbital tumors compressing the globe may result in choroidal folds. The folds or striae can occur within the macula or adjacent to the optic disc.



Causes of compressive optic neuropathy include the following:

  • Inflammatory diseases
    • Thyroid orbitopathy (ie, Graves' orbitopathy)
    • Orbital pseudotumor
  • Orbital tumors
    • Benign
      • Cavernous hemangioma
      • Schwannoma
    • Malignant
      • Lymphoma
      • Sarcomas (eg, rhabdomyosarcoma)
      • Mesenchymal (eg, fibrous histiocytoma)
      • Metastatic (eg, breast, lung)
  • Optic nerve tumors
    • Optic nerve glioma
    • Optic nerve meningioma
  • Vascular lesions
    • Aneurysms (or dolichoectatic vessels)
    • Lymphangioma
    • Orbital varix
    • Arteriovenous malformation
    • Orbital hemorrhage
  • Intracranial tumors
    • Meningoma
    • Pituitary adenoma
    • Metastatic
  • Congenital lesions
    • Dermoid cyst
    • Teratoma
  • Other
    • Cholesterol granuloma
    • Mucocele
    • Arachnoid cysts of optic nerve sheath
    • Bony compression (osteopetrosis, fibrous dysplasia, Paget's disease)
    • Encephalocele
    • Hypertrophic or granulomatous cranial meningitis
    • Low folate and indoor pollution may also be risk factors as was found in a Tanzanian study conducted by Hodson et al.[5]
Contributor Information and Disclosures

Jonathan W Kim, MD Director of Oculoplastic and Orbital Surgery, Co-director of Ocular Oncology Service, Co-director of Neuro-ophthalmology Service, Department of Ophthalmology, Stanford Medical Center

Jonathan W Kim, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Academy of Ophthalmology, American Society of Ophthalmic Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, North American Neuro-Ophthalmology Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Talmadge (Ted) Cooper, MD Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Ophthalmology, Stanford University School of Medicine

Talmadge (Ted) Cooper, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Ophthalmology, American College of Medical Informatics

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Diana Katherine Lee Georgetown University School of Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Simon K Law, MD, PharmD Clinical Professor of Health Sciences, Department of Ophthalmology, Jules Stein Eye Institute, University of California, Los Angeles, David Geffen School of Medicine

Simon K Law, MD, PharmD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Ophthalmology, Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, American Glaucoma Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Hampton Roy, Sr, MD Associate Clinical Professor, Department of Ophthalmology, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences

Hampton Roy, Sr, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Ophthalmology, American College of Surgeons, Pan-American Association of Ophthalmology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Edsel Ing, MD, FRCSC Associate Professor, Department of Ophthalmology and Vision Sciences, University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine; Consulting Staff, Hospital for Sick Children and Sunnybrook Hospital

Edsel Ing, MD, FRCSC is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Ophthalmology, American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus, American Society of Ophthalmic Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, Canadian Ophthalmological Society, North American Neuro-Ophthalmology Society, Canadian Society of Oculoplastic Surgery, European Society of Ophthalmic Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Canadian Medical Association, Ontario Medical Association, Statistical Society of Canada, Chinese Canadian Medical Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Brian R Younge, MD Professor of Ophthalmology, Mayo Clinic School of Medicine

Brian R Younge, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Medical Association, American Ophthalmological Society, and North American Neuro-Ophthalmology Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Axial MRI taken 3 weeks after the onset of distorted vision in the right eye; visual acuity is reduced to counting fingers at 1 ft. Evidence of optic nerve compression is not seen; disease in the sphenoid sinus is reported.
MRI of same patient as in the image above taken 4 months later. Patient responded well to IV Solu-Medrol, but symptoms returned when steroids were reduced. Large mass compressing the right optic nerve is seen. Biopsy revealed lymphoma.
A 72-year-old man with a moderate decrease in vision in the left eye (20/20 right, 20/25 left). Fundus examination revealed a normal right optic nerve.
Same patient as in image above of a 72-year-old man with a moderate decrease in vision in the left eye (20/20 right, 20/25 left). Fundus examination revealed an atrophic left optic nerve.
Neuroimaging study (MRI of brain and orbits) revealed an extensive meningioma involving the left orbital apex (arrow).
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