What Are Optic Nerve Drusen?

Dr. Russel Lazarus, October 14, 2021

An estimated 1 in 50 people have been diagnosed with optic nerve drusen.

The optic nerve connects the eye to the brain and transmits the visual information received by the eye to the brain. Any damage to the optic nerve can result in permanent vision loss.

Drusen are deposits on the retina that can lead to macular degeneration. However, drusen can also appear on the optic nerve.

Optic nerve drusen are abnormal protein and calcium deposits that can form within the optic nerve. 

They are most commonly found in both eyes, but can also affect only one eye as well.

The optic nerve usually appears as a round, yellow/pink area with the blood vessels radiating out from the center. When drusen are present this nerve is elevated with ‘bumpy’ edges and the margins are blurry or indistinct.

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If you’ve experienced any change to your vision, contact an eye doctor near you.

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How do optic nerve drusen affect vision?

Although optic nerve drusen rarely damages vision, they can cause peripheral vision loss.

The symptoms are usually minor and go unnoticed by the patient. In older children, visual field examinations may be used to monitor for decreasing peripheral vision.

Optic nerve drusen can cause choroidal neovascular membranes, which are an extremely rare complication. These membranes are a group of abnormal blood vessels that develop beneath the retina near the optic nerve. These membranes can bleed on occasion, resulting in an abrupt loss of central  vision.

Optic nerve drusen and papilledema

The most serious issue with optic nerve drusen is that they might be misdiagnosed by some eye care professionals.

Patients with these unusual looking nerves may be suspected as having a serious condition such as papilledema, which is caused by high pressure and swelling in the brain.

The diagnosis of papilledema often requires immediate neuroimaging, lumbar puncture, and hospitalization.

If the optic nerve is not swollen, this is referred to as psuedo-papilledema.

As a result, while optic nerve drusen and papilledema may appear to be identical, they are actually quite different. To avoid any unnecessary exams, it’s critical to distinguish between these two conditions — eye doctors can easily distinguish what is what.

LEARN MORE: Guide to Eye Health

Schedule an appointment with an eye doctor near you, who can distinguish between optic nerve drusen or something else.