Retinitis Pigmentosa and Low Vision

Editor: Dr. Russel Lazarus, Published May 3, 2021

An estimated 1 in 4,000 people are affected by retinitis pigmentosa (RP).

Retinitis pigmentosa is an inherited eye disease that causes a breakdown and loss of cells in the retina. The most common symptoms of RP include decreased peripheral vision, trouble seeing at sunset and night or colors appearing washed out.

While there is no cure for most causes of RP, it can be managed effectively with the help of a low vision eye doctor.

If you have been diagnosed with RP, contact an eye doctor near you, who will provide low vision aids and devices, as well as the practical skills needed to manage the condition.

What causes retinitis pigmentosa?

Retinitis pigmentosa is an inherited eye condition, affecting the genes responsible for the healthy growth of the photoreceptors in the retina.

Photoreceptors are the cells in the retina that begin the process of seeing. They absorb and convert light into electrical signals, which are sent to other cells in the retina and ultimately through the optic nerve to the brain, where they are processed into the images we see. Cones and rods are the two types of photoreceptors, and both can be affected by RP.

Most forms of RP first cause a degeneration of the rods, making it harder to see in dim light. As the condition progresses, the cones, which are located in the center of the retina, will be affected. Once the rods become damaged it is difficult to perceive color and fine detail.

Retinitis Pigmentosa Symptoms

People with RP may experience vision loss in the following ways:

  • Reduced vision in dim light: Visual acuity is reduced in situations of low lighting, such as reading a menu in a restaurant, navigating in a dimly lit movie theatre or during sunset.
  • Gradual loss of peripheral (side) vision, also known as tunnel vision. A person with tunnel vision may find themselves bumping into things as they move around.
  • Loss of central vision. This can make it difficult to do detailed tasks such as reading, crafts or threading a needle. Even watching TV or viewing a sports event may be challenging.
  • Loss of night vision. People with night blindness find it difficult to see at night, especially for driving orat  entertainment venues. It can take a few minutes for their eyes to adjust between bright and darker places and they may have trouble seeing clearly even at dusk or twilight.
  • Problems with color vision. Some people may have trouble seeing colors or distinguishing between similar colors. The colors seen are often washed out rather than vibrant.

Low vision treatment for retinitis pigmentosa

Vision loss due to retinitis pigmentosa can present challenges in performing ordinary tasks like reading, recognizing faces and watching TV.

There are several low vision aids and devices that can maximize one’s remaining vision in order to continue working and maintain an active lifestyle.

Some low vision aids and glasses available include:

  • Bioptic telescopic glasses
  • Close circuit television (CCT) or digital magnifiers
  • Custom-made optical systems
  • Hand-held magnifiers
  • Low vision magnifying reading glasses
  • Prismatic reading glasses
  • Reverse telescopic glasses
  • Side-vision awareness glasses
  • Tele-microscopic glasses

Contact an eye doctor near you for help in managing your retinitis pigmentosa and maximizing your usable vision.