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Retinitis pigmentosa

Contents of this page:


Slit-lamp exam
Slit-lamp exam

Alternative Names    Return to top


Definition    Return to top

Retinitis pigmentosa is an eye disease in which there is damage to the retina. The damage gets worse (progresses) over time.

Causes    Return to top

Retinitis pigmentosa commonly runs in families. The disorder can be caused by a number of genetic defects.

The cells controlling night vision (rods) are most likely to be affected. However, in some cases, retinal cone cells are damaged the most. The main sign of the disease is the presence of dark lines in the retina.

As the disease gets worse, side (peripheral) vision is gradually lost. The condition may eventually lead to blindness, but usually not complete blindness. Signs and symptoms often first appear in childhood, but severe vision problems do not usually develop until early adulthood.

The main risk factor is a family history of retinitis pigmentosa. It is an uncommon condition affecting about 1 in 4,000 people in the United States.

Symptoms    Return to top

Exams and Tests    Return to top

Tests to evaluate the retina:

Treatment    Return to top

There is no effective treatment for this condition. Wearing sunglasses to protect the retina from ultraviolet light may help preserve vision.

Controversial studies have suggested that treatment with antioxidants (such as vitamin A palmitate) may slow the disease from getting worse.

Several clinical trials are in progress to investigate new treatments for retinitis pigmentosa.

Microchip implants that go inside the retina are in the early stages of development for treating blindness associated with this condition.

It can help to see a low-vision specialist. Make regular visits to an eye care specialist, who can screen for cataracts or retinal swelling -- both of which can be treated.

Outlook (Prognosis)    Return to top

The disorder will continue to progress, although slowly. Complete blindness is uncommon.

Possible Complications    Return to top

Peripheral and central loss of vision will eventually occur.

Patients with retinitis pigmentosa often develop cataracts at an early age. Cataracts can be removed if they cause vision loss.

Many other conditions have similarities to retinitis pigmentosa, including:

When to Contact a Medical Professional    Return to top

Call your health care provider if night vision becomes difficult or if you develop other symptoms of this disorder.

Prevention    Return to top

Genetic counseling may determine whether your children are at risk for this disease.

References    Return to top

Sieving PA. Retinitis Pigmentosa and Related Disorders. In: Yanoff M, Duker JS, Augsburger JJ, Azar DT. Yanoff: Ophthalmology. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA; Mosby:chap 108.

Update Date: 4/22/2008

Updated by: Andrew A. Dahl, MD, FACS, Director of Ophthalmology Training, Institute for Family Health, Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology, New York College of Medicine, New York, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

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