What is retinitis pigmentosa?
Retinitis pigmentosa is a collection of inherited eye disorders where there is damage to the retina. If you have retinitis pigmentosa, there is support and advice available to help you live with the condition.
The retina is a layer of tissue on the inside back of the eye. It contains cells that detect light and send signals to the brain. The brain understands these signals as vision — this is how you see.
In people with retinitis pigmentosa, these cells gradually break down, causing a gradual loss of vision. The breakdown of these cells is unpredictable — it can happen slowly in some people and more quickly in others.
Some people may have poor vision throughout their lives while others may completely lose their eyesight.
What are the symptoms of retinitis pigmentosa?
Retinitis pigmentosa can come on slowly or quickly. Sometimes it starts in childhood, but it starts more often in young adults. The main problems people notice are:
- ‘night blindness’ — difficulty seeing at night or in dim light
- difficulty transitioning from light to dark, or vice versa
- ‘tunnel vision’ — having a narrower field of vision than normal
- being sensitive to light
Tunnel vision occurs because cells on the outer edges of the retina usually break down first, resulting in a loss of peripheral vision.
Some people have poor vision for the rest of their lives, while some lose their vision completely.
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What causes retinitis pigmentosa?
Retinitis pigmentosa is caused by a genetic problem which causes the cells in the retina to be damaged.
How is retinitis pigmentosa diagnosed?
See your doctor or optometrist if you notice any chances in your vision. Your doctor may refer you to an eye specialist (ophthalmologist) if they suspect retinitis pigmentosa. An ophthalmologist may ask you undergo some eye tests, including tests to check your colour vision, peripheral vision and an examination of the retina to make a diagnosis.
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How is retinitis pigmentosa treated?
Currently, there is no known cure or standard treatment for retinitis pigmentosa. However, there is ongoing research into stem cell and gene therapy.
If you have retinitis pigmentosa, your doctor may recommend that you wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from ultraviolet light. This might help to preserve your vision.
Resources and support
Vision Australia and Retina Australia can provide support and advice to help people live with low vision.
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Last reviewed: July 2021