How Retinitis Pigmentosa Disease Affects the Eyes

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Millions of Americans suffer from eye diseases and medical conditions that impact their vision. Sometimes the disease or condition is managed with medication and lifestyle changes. But other diseases, like retinitis pigmentosa, can lead to vision loss. Here’s what you should know about how retinitis pigmentosa disease affects the eyes.


Retinitis pigmentosa is a rare genetic disorder that can be caused by over 60 different genes. About 50% of people diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa have a family member who also has it. The disease is passed from parent to child. However, the mother or father with the gene may not have it. Overall, about 1 in 4,000 people inherit the condition.

Retinitis pigmentosa disease affects the eyes early in life. It usually develops during childhood and quickly gets worse. By young adulthood, it steals most of a person’s sight. And by age 40, the person is considered legally blind.


Eye doctors detect how retinitis pigmentosa disease affects the eyes by examining the retina, located near the optic nerve. The retina receives light through rods and cones in the eye. The rods, in the outer ring of the retina, provide vision in dim light. The cones, located in the retina’s center portion, help people see colors and fine detail.

Retinitis pigmentosa disease affects the eyes by attacking the rods first. This affects night vision and peripheral vision (ability to see to the side). Gradually, the disease attacks the cones, making it difficult to do detail work and see colors. In addition, people with retinitis pigmentosa say they have problems with bright lights. Some people even see flashes of light that shimmer or blink.

Diagnosis and treatment

As a general rule, when vision changes happen, it’s time to see an eye doctor. A professional eye exam can uncover the source of the problem. This includes a thorough examination of the retina. In rare cases, if the exam confirms the presence of retinitis pigmentosa, the doctor will test the person’s DNA. This reveals how the disease was passed genetically. Then, family members should be tested as well.

The severity of retinitis pigmentosa varies from person to person. Retinitis pigmentosa disease can affect the eyes only, or it can be accompanied by a non-ocular disease such as Usher syndrome. Usher syndrome affects both vision and hearing at a young age.

Although there is no known cure for retinitis pigmentosa, the doctor may recommend treatment to slow vision loss. This could include medication, vitamins, or surgery for a retinal implant to provide partial sight. Also, wearing sunglasses will protect the eyes from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet light. New treatments to slow the damage of retinitis pigmentosa disease and its effect on the eyes are being researched.

Learn more about the importance of scheduling eye exams so you can enjoy a lifetime of healthy vision.


American Academy of Ophthalmology
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