Every year, nearly 800,000 Americans suffer a stroke, according to the Internet Stroke Center.
Strokes are a leading cause of death and disability, but what many people don’t realize is that two out of three stroke survivors will also experience visual impairments related to their stroke (Rowe). These can include diminished central or peripheral vision, eye movement abnormalities or visual perceptual defects.
Sadly, it is not uncommon for me to see patients who are still struggling with undiagnosed vision problems months or even years after a stroke. There are a number of reasons for this. In the immediate days and weeks after a stroke, patients and their families and doctors are often most concerned about preventing brain hemorrhages and addressing motor and language deficits. After that, patients may have difficulty articulating their symptoms or may not be aware that balance issues are connected to vision. In some cases, they may have been examined and incorrectly told that nothing can be done.
Given the prevalence of post-stroke visual impairment, anyone who suffers a stroke should be seen by an eye care specialist as soon as possible and, ideally, be referred to a neuro-optometric rehabilitation optometrist. Visual rehabilitation can lead to greater independence and improved quality of life and can accelerate the success of other therapies. In fact, most stroke survivors need more than one type of rehabilitation, so it is not unusual for me to work with a team of speech, occupational or physical therapists to help the stroke survivor learn new ways of performing tasks to circumvent or compensate for any residual disabilities.
The most common visual complication of stroke is a homonymous hemianopsia, or a visual field defect on the same side in each eye, resulting from damage to the occipital lobe, where the majority of visual processing takes place. This type of stroke-related field loss is often accompanied by a visual midline shift, which occurs when there is a mismatch between visual spatial information and the patient’s proprioceptive base of support.
A shift in the visual midline can directly affect posture, balance and spatial orientation, and it significantly increases the risk of falls. It is relatively easy to diagnose: Just ask a patient to walk down the hall and observe whether they drift to one side or tip backwards or forwards. In a study that I co-authored with Dr. William Padula, we showed that intervention with yoked prisms can restore the visual midline, thereby improving balance and reducing the risk of falls and subsequent injury.
Strokes that affect other parts of the brain may result in cranial nerve damage-associated diplopia or the rare but fascinating phenomenon of visual neglect, in which the patient completely loses awareness of one side of the body. In less severe cases, there can also be subtle effects on eye tracking and teaming, leading to impaired saccades and pursuits or convergence insufficiency. These impairments can be improved with vision rehabilitation and prism lenses.
Vision rehabilitation may not always be able to fully restore patients to the same degree of visual function they had before the stroke, but we can go a long way towards improving quality of life and helping patients maximize the vision they have.
Internet Stroke Center. U.S. Stroke Statistics. http://www.strokecenter.org/patients/about-stroke/stroke-statistics/. Accessed January 16, 2019.
Padula WV, et al. NeuroRehabilitation. 2015;doi:10.3233/NRE-151263.
Rowe FJ. Brain Behav. 2017;doi:10.1002/brb3.778.