Visual impairment

Specialty of Optometry

What is visual impairment?

A visual impairment refers to loss of vision or the decreased ability to see at a ‘normal’ level. The WHO estimate that there are approximately 1.3 billion people in the world living with some form of visual impairment. Visual impairment can be mild or severe, or refer to a complete loss of sight (blindness). Roughly 1.87 million people in the UK live with sight loss that has some kind of impact on their daily lives.

What are the causes of visual impairment?

The leading causes of visual impairment on a global scale are:

The risk of visual impairment increases with age, as many visual impairments are connected to conditions occurring in old age. Diabetics and those who smoke are also at greater risk of developing a visual impairment.

What are the symptoms of visual impairment?

Symptoms depend on the cause of the specific impairment, however some signs that may point to a visual impairment include:

  • Seeing floating shapes across your vision, e.g webs or lines
  • Seeing halos of light or flashes of light
  • Changes in iris colour
  • Blurred vision
  • Double vision
  • Sudden pain in the eye
  • Recurrent pain in or around the eye
  • Sudden change in vision
  • Painful sensitivity to light

Visual impairments may also cause problems with everyday activities, for example you may find that you bump into things more frequently, or you have trouble walking downstairs/upstairs, or over uneven surfaces.

You may also find that reading becomes more difficult – you may notice that you have to hold material closer to your face, or you find it difficult to read in low light.

What is the treatment for visual impairment?

Treatment for visual impairment depends on the type of impairment itself. For example, refractive error can be corrected with glasses or the use of contact lenses, but other conditions, such as glaucoma, may need managing in other ways. Visual impairments may be treated through optical aids, medication, or surgical procedures such as laser eye surgery or glaucoma surgery.

Is there any way to prevent visual impairment?

The WHO estimates that roughly 80% of visual impairment cases worldwide are avoidable. Refractive error can be corrected with glasses (or contact lenses) and there are certain surgical procedures which can restore vision (e.g in cataracts). You can reduce your risk of developing a visual impairment by not smoking, and, if you are diabetic, following your doctor’s advice to monitor the condition.

Regular eye checks are recommended to spot the signs of visual impairment early on, particularly in older age.

Which specialist treats visual impairment?

An ophthalmologist (eye doctor) typically treats and manages visual impairments.

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