What is Papilledema?

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  • Written By: Allison Boelcke
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 11 September 2019
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Papilledema is a condition in which the optic nerves become inflamed due to the skull pressing down on them. The optic nerves connect the brain tissue with the retinas, which are the farthest-back tissue of the eyes. These nerves are also responsible for relaying messages between the brain and the eyes. Optic nerve inflammation can occur due to other causes, and would be classified as a different condition. It is only considered papilledema if the inflammation is due the skull pressing down on the nerves.

When the optic nerves become inflamed, they can cause problems with vision, such as double vision, blurriness, or brief flashes of gray. People with the condition may also experience vomiting combined with intense headaches. Although the symptoms themselves may not seem that dangerous to an individual, they can be indicative of a more serious underlying condition.

One of the most common causes of the condition is a brain tumor that applies force onto the skull. The swelling can also be a result of direct trauma to the skull or rupture of the blood vessels surrounding the brain. Meningitis, a bacterial infection that can affect the brain, can also produce the skull pressure that leads to papilledema.


In rare cases, papilledema can also be caused from issues not related to the brain that cause fluid to build up in the skull. The condition can be due to high blood pressure, causing the blood vessels near the optic nerves to swell. It can also be due to fluctuating hormone levels in women, such as pregnancy or hormonal forms of birth control.

A doctor can diagnose the condition by looking into a patient’s eyes with an ophthalmoscope, which is a mirrored instrument with a light. The ophthalmoscope allows the doctor to examine the optic nerves to determine if they appear swollen or have red spots that indicate bleeding. A doctor may also give the patient a vision screening to determine if his or her eyesight has started to become affected.

Papilledema is usually treating by dealing with the underlying medical issue that is causing the optic nerve inflammation. The issues may be able to be treated surgically or with medication to reduce skull pressure. Once the underlying issue is taken care of, the optic nerves will generally return to their normal sizes within eight weeks. If the condition is not treated within a short time of time, it can cause the optic nerves to become so swollen that they don’t receive enough blood flow. Lack of blood flow can cause permanent damage to the optic nerves and can lead to total vision loss.


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