Transient Visual Loss

H. Wilhelm

By transient visual loss we mean a drop in visual acuity or a loss of visual field, analogous to the transient ischemic attacks (TIAs) of neurological disease that last no longer than 24 h. This chapter does not discuss transient visual loss for which primary ophthalmic disorders are evident, such as intermittent angle closure glaucoma, vitreous clouding, retinal venous stasis, or the transient obscurations found in papilledema. Patients complaining of transient loss of vision frequently cause clinicians a great deal of worry, since the nature of their problem is often obscure. They may describe dramatic symptoms of visual loss without there being even a trace of objectively verifiable pathology. This can naturally lead the physician to consider a wide range of disorders, leading to a complex series of diagnostic tests, often without significant findings. Since a transient visual disturbance can be the harbinger of a retinal arterial occlusion, or even a stroke, the physician does not have the option of just giving up.

Amaurosis fugax is often used as a synonym for transient visual loss, but this is not completely correct. The problem is seldom expressed as periods of true amaurosis. Indeed, there are instances in which an excess of visual images obliterates portions of the visual field, such as in the scintillating scotomas of migraine.

Amaurosis Fugax
Flow diagram. Sequence of diagnostic testing in the work up of suspected central nervous system causes of transient visual loss


Initially, the diagnostician must rely on the history provided by the patient, but before he/she can form a diagnostic opinion, he/she needs an understanding of the patho-physiologic mechanisms involved. With the exception of rare epileptic conditions that affect central visual centers, ischemic disturbances are ordinarily the principal cause of transient visual loss. The source of ischemia in turn can be vasospasm, focal vascular disorders, thromboses, emboli arising from larger vessels or the heart, general circulatory deficits (as in cardiac pump failure or circulatory collapse), and problems of blood composition, such as polycythemia and hyperviscosity syndromes.

These pathogenic mechanisms can in turn have multiple different sources, requiring a variety of different diagnostic considerations. A dilatative cardiomyopathy in a patient on the waiting list for a heart transplant can, in principle, cause the same visual disturbance as can a bout of faulty circulatory regulation in a competitive athlete. Patients often suffer from multiple disorders, e.g., cardiac arrhythmia combined with carotid stenosis, or migraine and erythrocytosis. The cause of the problem in a particular case can be reliably determined only by adhering to a disciplined approach during the diagnostic workup.

A Pragmatic Approach to Identifying the Cause


It can be difficult to determine whether one is dealing with a monocular or a binocular complaint, for patients frequently describe a homonymous visual field defect as monocular. If portions of a binocular image are described as missing, one is probably dealing with a homonymous loss, since monocular field loss is ordinarily compensated by the preserved field in the unaffected eye. When flickering lights are reported, one should ask about the abruptness of onset of the visual loss. Retinal ischemia tends to occur hyper-acutely.

When a young patient describes a scintillating scotoma and has no apparent risk factors for vascular disease, questioning can be focused on symptoms likely to occur in migraine. If the patient has significant risk factors for vascular disease, for instance in a young patient with type I diabetes, one can direct questioning toward other symptoms that characterize ischemic disease.

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Fig. 14.1. Multiple retinal surface infarcts (cotton-wool spots) in a 58-year-old patient with an abdominal tumor and an associated hypercoagulopathy


Migraine visual aura is probably the most frequent cause of transient visual loss, and the scintillating scotoma is the most common type of visual defect in transient disease. Patients with migraine typically describe a sequence in which a small central spot gradually spreads out into the peripheral field with a lateral convexity, a zigzag, shimmering (often-colored) border zone, and a trailing, central visual field defect (see ■ Fig. 16.1) that gradually fades away. These auras can last for 5 to 60 min, but are more commonly 10- to 30-min long. Their duration can vary from one episode to the next, and the patient usually has an established prior history of migraine. When such a scotoma appears without an ensuing headache, the diagnosis of migraine can be accepted only if the patient has a prior history of migraine (see Chap. 16). Migraine need not be strictly unilateral.

Occasionally, and difficult to differentiate from vascular disease, is ocular migraine, in which the aura reflects a transient reduction in retinal, rather than cortical, blood supply. In this case, the complaint will be strictly monocular. Ocular migraine ordinarily does not produce scintillating scotomas, and frequently occurs without an ensuing headache. Only the stereotypical duration suggests the etiology.

One should avoid the term eye migraine, which is rather ambiguous, and which can confuse the distinctions between migraine with pain in or around the eye, painless visual auras, and ocular migraine with its transient reduction in retinal arterial blood flow.

Vascular Occlusions

If the patient does not report a scintillating scotoma and there is no prior history of migraine, vascular disease is the next category to suspect. One should ask about other signs and symptoms of vascular disease, in particular for a history of TIAs. A TIA is defined (vide supra) as a reversible loss of neural function that lasts for less than 24 h. Accordingly, amaurosis fugax is a form of TIA. It may seem unlikely that a source of emboli in the heart or the carotid artery can produce visual symptoms alone, without also causing somatic sensory or paralytic effects. However, there are good reasons for this phenomenon:

1. Visual symptoms are more striking than are transient changes in motor function or in somatosensory perception.

2. Due to the limited functional redundancy of the topographically organized visual system, even small insults can result in symptoms that rise to the level of conscious awareness.

3. The retinal blood supply is poorly collateralized, and the primary visual cortex lies in part within a watershed zone of vascular perfusion.

4. Laminar flow favors the blood supply to the visual system; hence, emboli are more likely to find their way into the system.

During history taking, the classical risk factors to be considered include hypertension, diabetes mellitus, hypercho-lesterolemia, and tobacco use. In addition, one should inquire whether there have been any prior cardiac events, including myocardial infarction, arrhythmia, murmur, prosthetic valve, myo- or endocarditis, or symptoms of heart failure. Review of a patient's medications will often reveal more about vascular disease than the patient can.

During initial contact with the patient, one should take notice of any indications of a potentially emergent problem. Fever, malaise, and/or lethargy in a younger patient may suggest an endocarditis or vasculitis, while in older patients one must consider the possibility of giant cell arte-ritic syndrome. If an injury or a chiropractic manipulation preceded the visual loss or if the loss was accompanied by onset of a severe neck/head pain, or signs of Horner's syndrome, a carotid dissection should be considered.

Diagnostic Workup When Migraine

Is the Suspected Cause of Transient Visual Loss

When migraine is the suspected cause of transient visual loss, a complete neurological examination is appropriate. If there are any pathological findings on fundus or perimetric examinations, the diagnosis of migraine as the sole cause of transient visual loss should be questioned, and diagnostic imaging should be considered.

Diagnostic Workup When Embolic Disease Is the Suspected Cause of Transient Visual Loss

Ophthalmic Examination

Visual acuity, pupillary light responses, and perimetry are of central importance when embolic disease is suspected. The anterior segment of each eye should be examined, looking for evidence of chronic ischemia. Anterior chamber flare, (initial) unilateral reduction of intraocular pressure, iris neovascularization and secondary glaucoma are important signs.

Fundus examination should focus on evidence of vascular disease:

1. Are there signs of hypertension, vascular narrowing, or cotton-wool spots?

2. Are there signs of vascular sheathing that suggest vas-culitis, venous stasis, or chronic ischemia?

3. Is the optic disc pale, or does it have blurred margins, edema, or surface hemorrhages or cotton-wool spots to indicate an ischemic optic neuropathy?

4. Are there vascular changes to suggest a systemic disease, such as diabetes mellitus, leukemia, or endocarditis?

One should search carefully for emboli in the retinal vessels. This may be the only positive fundus finding with no other clue as to the source of the problem. In cases of recent embolization of the retinal arterioles, very small particles may be found in the most peripheral vessels only. Acute embolization of the central retinal vessels by cholesterol emboli is often followed by disintegration and dispersal of the particles into the periphery, as has been reported by several observers.

Aside from very rare tumor and/or fat emboli, there are three types of embolic particles:

1. Cholesterol emboli are a glistening gold to light-yellow color, tend to lodge at arteriolar bifurcations, and are easily broken up and dislodged into more peripheral vessels, as can sometimes be induced by anterior chamber paracentesis. They often originate from eroding plaques in the carotid arteries or in the aortic arch (■ Fig. 14.2).

2. Fibrin thrombocytic emboli are matte gray in color, occlude longer segments of retinal arterial vessels, and can mimic the appearance of a string of pearls. They arise most commonly from the carotids, the aorta, or the heart. In patients with coagulopathic disorders, they can appear de novo (■ Fig. 14.3).

3. Calcified emboli arise predominantly from the heart, are large and round, do not glisten like the cholesterol particles, usually stop at vascular bifurcations, and seldom move into the peripheral arterioles.

^ Pearl

The patient's complaint often gives an important clue as to where one should look when searching for an em-bolus. If the area of visual loss is seen in the superotem-poral quadrant of the visual field, for instance, the search should concentrate on the inferonasal fundus.

Fig. 14.2 Cholesterol embolus lodged in an arterial bifurcation in a 65-year-old patient with abrupt onset of a visual field defect

Perimetry will reveal whether any permanent damage has been done, or whether the occlusions were short lived and reversible, with only a temporary reduction in vision.

Emboli Fundus Photo
Fig. 14.3 Enlarged fundus photograph of a chain of fibrin/throm-bocyte emboli in a retinal arteriole

Additional Diagnostic Tests


Carotid Doppler ultrasonography and B-scan echography of the major arteries supplying the brain (duplex scan, ■ Fig. 14.4) have largely replaced other diagnostic methods, such as ophthalmodynamometry or ocular plethysmography and related techniques. These are nonetheless simple, reliable, and noninvasive. Cerebral angiography is seldom necessary in the workup of microembolic disease. Magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) is a suitable and noninvasive procedure that images the large arteries of the neck and skull base in their entirety. It is particularly suited to the diagnosis of dissecting carotid aneurysms.

Fig. 14.4 Typical carotid ultrasound findings. On the left side are normal scans of the carotid bifurcation (top left) and the internal carotid artery (bottom left). On the right side is an occlusion of the internal carotid artery (top right) and an ulcerated plaque with acoustic shadowing (bottom right)

Fig. 14.4 Typical carotid ultrasound findings. On the left side are normal scans of the carotid bifurcation (top left) and the internal carotid artery (bottom left). On the right side is an occlusion of the internal carotid artery (top right) and an ulcerated plaque with acoustic shadowing (bottom right)

Takayasu Arteritis Carotid Ultrasound

Cardiovascular Testing

Cardiac stress testing, echocardiography, transesophageal echography, and 24-h ECG monitoring provide a more complete picture of a patient's cardiovascular condition. The use of these tests has not been as traditionally common as has the use of carotid Doppler scanning, but they can reveal systemic vascular diseases that commonly lead to transient visual loss. If there is reason to suspect greater problems with vascular disease than the patient is aware of, prompt referral for a cardiovascular evaluation is very important.


Perhaps the first test to be done - before the initial encounter is done - is for the ophthalmologist to feel the radial pulse. An irregular pulse, as in atrial fibrillation, or a tachycardia may provide a ready clue as to the source of the visual symptom.

Internal Medical Evaluation and Laboratory Testing

In those patients for whom a migrainous syndrome has been ruled out, a number of important risk factors should be investigated:

■ Arterial hypertension

■ Diabetes mellitus

■ Hyperlipidemia

In addition, signs and symptoms of other systemic disorders should be investigated, and the younger the patient, the more urgent the investigation should be. There may be clues to less common collagen vascular diseases, such as arthritis, serositis, Raynaud's phenomenon, xerostomia, sicca syndrome, or alopecia. Pregnancy, postpartum status, estrogen and/or progesterone use (as in oral birth control pills), and dehydration can all increase the likelihood of transient visual loss. One must also remember to consider systemic vasculitic syndromes, such as giant cell arteritis in elderly patients (check the erythrocyte sedimentation rate), panarteritis nodosa in patients of all ages, and Takayasu's arteritis in the young. Sarcoidosis and Behcet's disease can present with vasculitic symptoms and transient visual loss. If there is any suspicion of these disorders, consultation with an experienced internist or rheumatologist is indicated. Further, though even less common than are vascu-litic syndromes, heredofamilial disorders of coagulation can lead to thrombotic episodes and transient bouts of visual loss. As a rule, these are more likely to cause venous thromboses, but have also been known to present with ar-

Table 14.1. Hereditary coagulopathies, PAI plasminogen activator inhibitor, t-PA tissue-plasminogen activator



Factor V resistance to activated protein C (Factor V Leiden)


Protein C deficiency


Protein S deficiency


Antithrombin III deficiency


Fibrinolytic disorders: Factor XII, plasminogen, PAI, t-PA deficiency (difficult to detect)

Prothrombin 620210A mutation

teriolar occlusions. ■ Table 14.1 lists the relevant hereditary disorders.

Among acquired vasculitic disorders, antiphospholipid syndrome, and hyperhomocystinemia should be considered. Antiphospholipid syndrome gives rise to arterial and venous cerebral thromboses. As a rule, hematologic screening for thrombophilia will either rule out or indicate this potential source of disease. A high level of risk for ischemic disease can arise from several combinations of heredofa-milial disorders and other risk factors. Factor V resistance to activated protein C has a prevalence of about 5%. Looking for such cases and reducing the risk of thrombotic events by starting appropriate prophylactic therapy (such as folic acid to treat hyperhomocystinemia) is particularly important when no other risk factors are present, when the patient is young, or when there is a family history of frequent thrombotic events.

A few malignant tumors can also give rise to an elevated risk of thromboses. These paraneoplastic syndromes should be considered when no other source of an ocular ischemic syndrome can be found (■ Fig. 14.1). Pregnancy and the use of oral contraceptives likewise increase the risk of thrombotic events.

Transient Visual Loss in Various Clinical Syndromes

Carotid Stenosis

The transient visual loss associated with carotid stenoses are for the most part short, not lasting for more than 15 min. The use of the term fugax is nonetheless legitimate. The diagnosis can be made by carotid Doppler ultrasound testing. The degree of stenosis determines the subsequent steps to be taken. When there is complete carotid occlusion or the location of a stenosis is not surgically accessible, reduction of modifiable risk factors (chiefly cessation of tobacco use) and daily use of aspirin are the only available options. The same applies to those stenoses that are less than 70%. If the stenosis is above 70%, an endarterectomy should be considered.

A patient with transient monocular loss ofvision caused by ischemic disease has a significantly elevated risk of suffering a stroke or a retinal infarction.

The height of this risk cannot be known precisely, as the results of individual studies have been as variable as the expression of ischemic disease. It can be concluded that patients with transient visual loss who are under 40 years of age and have normal carotid blood flow have a annual risk of stroke of about 3%. Endarterectomy reduces this risk of stroke significantly, despite the considerable risk of surgery. Such patients should be evaluated in a consulting vascular service, where the alternate risks of medical and surgical management can be explained to them carefully.

In all cases the use of thrombocytic aggregation inhibitors - classically aspirin - is advisable. When aspirin is con-traindicated or not tolerated, alternate use of clopidogrel 75 g daily can be recommended. The ideal dose of aspirin has not been precisely determined, with study recommendations varying from 50 to 1,500 mg daily. Current practice tends toward the use of lower doses, with 81 mg of enteric-coated preparations being the most common.

Cardiac Disease

Atrial Fibrillation

Cardiac sources of cerebral and ocular ischemia are manifold and varied. Atrial fibrillation is the most important, in that the risk of stroke in patients over 60 years of age is increased fivefold. Detection of the problem is as simple as remembering to check the radial pulse for the characteristic irregularity of ventricular contraction. Anticoagulation by dicumarol or warfarin reduces the risk of stroke considerably.

Mitral Stenosis or Prosthesis

Mitral stenosis after rheumatic fever results in a high risk of cardiogenic emboli, and is often coupled with atrial fibrillation. Following valve replacement, the risk remains high, and there is little difference in risk comparing mechanical or bioprosthetic valves.


Another important clinical syndrome is that of bacterial endocarditis. These patients present with fever, shaking chills, and night sweats. Fundus examination reveals dot and blot hemorrhages and so-called Roth spots, which appear as flame-shaped retinal hemorrhages, each having a white exudate at the center. In those with acute onset endocarditis, Staphylococcus aureus is the most common infectious agent, while subacute disease is most frequently found to be associated with Streptococcus viridians. These patients need immediate admission to hospital for treatment with intravenous antibiotics. The same applies to patients with chronic wasting diseases or long-term immunosuppres-sion, which can likewise lead to bacterial endocarditis.

Mitral Valve Prolapse

A common disorder, mitral valve prolapse is usually asymptomatic. Still, there is an increased risk of cerebral or ocular episodes of TIAs. At a minimum, symptomatic patients need prophylactic treatment with agents that inhibit thrombocyte aggregation (e.g., aspirin or clopidogrel).

Various Additional Cardiac Causes of Transient Visual Loss

Other less common cardiac causes of transient visual loss include calcified aortic stenosis, myocardial infarction, atrial myxoma, and cardiac myopathy. Therapy in each of these cardiac diseases is different, but is usually more successful than the treatment of carotid stenosis.


Identification of the cause of transient visual loss requires a careful plan of evaluation by a knowledgeable ophthalmologist. Benign disorders, such as migraine, must be differentiated from more serious disorders that pose a greater threat to the patient's vision, such as stroke or myocardial infarction. The presence of risk factors, such as a coagulopathy and/or a vasculitic disease; an abnormal carotid Doppler ultrasound; and abnormalities found in cardiac testing are the foundations of a properly organized approach to the diagnosis and treatment of transient visual loss.

Further Reading

Burde RM, Savino PJ, Trobe JD (2002) Clinical decisions in neurophthalmology. Mosby, St. Louis Flegel KM, Shipley MJ, Rose G (1987) Risk of stroke in non-rheumatic atrial fibrillation. Lancet 1(8532): 526-529 North American Symptomatic Carotid Endarterectomy Trial Collaborators (NASCET) (1991) Beneficial effect of carotid endarterectomy in symptomatic patients with high-grade carotid stenosis. N Engl J Med 325: 445-453 Unsöld R (1994) Neuropathien des Sehnerven bei entzündlichen Systemerkrankungen und Vaskulitiden. Ophthalmologe 91: 251-262 Wilhelm H (1995) Migräne - mehr als nur Kopfweh. Z prakt Augen-heilkd 16: 31-38

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  • diana fallaci
    How to do a pathophysiology flowchart on Raynaud's disease?
    5 years ago
  • stephan
    What steps to take with echo with suspected amaurosis fugax?
    5 years ago
  • Frodo
    What does transient visual loss mean?
    4 years ago

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