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All those, therefore, who have cataract see the light more or less, and by this we distinguish cataract from amaurosis and glaucoma, for persons affected with these complaints do not perceive the light at all.


The commonest cause of visual dysfunction is a simple refractive error. However, there are many causes of visual failure, including the emergency of sudden blindness, a problem that requires a sound management strategy. Apart from migraine, virtually all cases of sudden loss of vision require urgent treatment.

The ‘white’ eye or uninflamed eye presents a different clinical problem from the red or inflamed eye.1 The ‘white’ eye is painless and usually presents with visual symptoms and it is in the ‘white’ eye that the majority of blinding conditions occur.


This varies from country to country. The WHO defines blindness as ‘best visual acuity less than 3/60’, while in Australia eligibility for the blind pension is ‘bilateral corrected visual acuity less than 6/60 or significant visual field loss’ (e.g. a patient can have 6/6 vision but severely restricted fields caused by chronic open-angle glaucoma). The minimum standard for driving is 6/12 (Snellen system) in the better eye or bilaterally. Commercial licence standards are stricter (see Austroads guidelines).



The history should carefully define the onset, progress, duration, offset and the extent of visual loss. An accurate history is important because a visual defect (particularly unilateral) may only just have been noticed by the patient, even if it has been longstanding. Two questions need to be answered:

  • Is the loss unilateral or bilateral?

  • Is the onset acute, or gradual and progressive?

Key facts and checkpoints

  • The commonest cause of blindness in the world is trachoma. The other major causes of gradual blindness are cataracts, onchocerciasis and vitamin A deficiency.2

  • In Western countries, the commonest causes are senile cataract, glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration, trauma and diabetic retinopathy.2

  • The commonest causes of sudden visual loss are migraine and transient occlusion of the retinal artery (amaurosis fugax).3

  • ‘Flashing lights’ are caused by traction on the retina and may have a serious connotation: the commonest cause is vitreoretinal traction, which is a classic precursor to retinal detachment.

  • The presence of floaters or ‘blobs’ in the visual fields indicates pigment in the vitreous: causes include vitreous haemorrhage and vitreous detachment.

  • Posterior vitreous detachment is the commonest cause of the acute onset of floaters, especially with advancing age.

  • Retinal detachment has a tendency to occur in short-sighted (myopic) people.

  • Suspect a macular abnormality where objects look smaller or straight lines are bent or distorted.

The distinction between central and peripheral visual loss is useful. Central visual loss presents ...

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