Alcoholism Can Lead to Vision Loss, Study Finds

Secret AlcoholicsPeople affected by long-term alcoholism have clearly increased risks for developing various forms of nerve damage or neuropathy. When this damage appears in either of the optic nerves that link the eyes to the brain, experts in the field commonly refer to it as optic neuropathy. In a pilot study published in June 2014 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, a team of French researchers sought to determine how often optic neuropathy appears in people with alcoholism. These researchers concluded the condition appears in a relatively small but significant number of individuals.

Alcoholism and Nerve Damage

When present in excessive amounts, alcohol is toxic to organ systems and structures throughout the body, including the nerves that connect the body to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). Over time, heavy alcohol exposure can directly contribute to a form of nerve damage generally known as alcoholic neuropathy. Alcoholic neuropathy also likely stems, in part, from nerve problems caused by the chronic nutritional deficiencies known to arise in cases of severe or prolonged alcoholism. Alcohol-related nerve damage can appear in parts of the nervous system under conscious control or in parts of the nervous system that function involuntarily. The specific symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy depend on the area of the body and the portion of the nervous system affected. Most people don’t die from the nerve damage they incur; however, that damage is typically lifelong and can grow worse if drinking behaviors and alcohol-related nutritional deficiencies go unaddressed.

Optic Neuropathy

Optic neuropathy is the collective name for a group of conditions that lead to degradation of the health of one or both optic nerves. Examples of these conditions include a stroke-like ailment called ischemic optic neuropathy, an inflammation-based ailment called optic neuritis, a physical injury-related ailment called traumatic optic neuropathy and a form of optic neuropathy stemming from toxin exposure and/or nutritional deficiency. Alcohol-related optic neuropathy falls under this last heading. Some forms of optic nerve damage can begin abruptly and progress fairly rapidly. However, damage associated with toxin exposure and nutritional deficiency typically develops more slowly over the course of several months. Potential symptoms of optic neuropathy include double vision, a loss of vision, pain in the area surrounding the temples, declining energy levels and blindness. Doctors must take a patient history in order to include or exclude alcoholism as a potential source of optic nerve damage.

How Many People Are Affected?

In the pilot study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers from the University Hospital of Montpelier and several other French institutions used an examination of 100 middle-aged adults receiving treatment for the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal at a single health facility to estimate how often optic neuropathy occurs in people with alcoholism. The researchers also used information from the same group of patients to identify any factors that could potentially increase or decrease the likelihood of developing alcohol-related optic nerve damage. All of the study participants received a thorough eye exam and supplied information on their basic demographic characteristics (gender, economic standing, educational status, etc.), their habitual patterns of alcohol intake, their habitual patterns of intake for other types of substances and their prior experiences with alcohol withdrawal.

The researchers concluded that a small but significant minority of both men (13 percent) and women (3 percent) enrolled in the study had bilateral vision loss characterized by disruption of normal color vision, one of the primary symptoms of optic neuropathy. In addition, 22 percent of the men and 18 percent of the women had signs of optic neuropathy that only appeared in one eye. Significant numbers of both men (27 percent) and women (7 percent) also had other indications of partial optic neuropathy.

The study’s authors initiated their project, in part, because researchers know fairly little about the specific manifestations of optic neuropathy in people diagnosed with alcoholism. Based on their findings, they believe that full manifestations of alcohol-related optic nerve damage (i.e., damage that appears in both eyes) are relatively uncommon. However, they also note the higher rates for partial manifestations of this type of nerve damage and call for the inclusion of optic nerve tests in screenings for people affected by alcoholism. In addition, they call for rapid treatment of all identified cases. Since the study was a pilot project, larger studies will likely be needed to confirm the authors’ findings.