Retinitis pigmentosa (RP) describes a group of related diseases that tend to run in families and cause a slow but progressive loss of vision. RP affects the rods and cones of the retina, the light-sensitive nerve layer at the back of the eye. RP usually affects both eyes equally, with severity ranging from no visual problems in some patients to blindness at an early age in others. RP gets its name from the fact that one of the signs is a clumping of the retinal pigment that can be seen during an eye exam in some patients.
Often, the earliest symptom of retinitis pigmentosa, usually noticed in childhood, is night blindness or difficulty with night vision. People with normal vision adjust to the dark quickly, but people with night blindness adjust very slowly or not at all. A loss of side vision, known as “tunnel vision,” is also common as RP progresses. Unfortunately, the combination of night blindness and the loss of peripheral vision can be severe and can lead to legal blindness in many people.
While there is a pattern of inheritance for RP, nearly half of all RP patients have no known previous family history. Learning more about RP in your family can help you and your eye doctor predict how RP will affect you.
Usher’s syndrome is a rare form of RP that causes both deafness and blindness.
Considerable research is being done to find the hereditary cause of RP. As hereditary defects are discovered, it may be possible to develop treatments to prevent progression of the disease. While developments are on the horizon, particularly in the area of genetic research, there is currently no cure for retinitis pigmentosa.
Nutritional supplements may be of benefit in RP. It has been reported that one form of vitamin A may slow the progression of RP. Large doses of vitamin A may be harmful to the body, and supplements of vitamin E alone may make RP worse. Omega-3 oils, such as docasohexaenoic acid (DHA) may help protect against the damaging effects of RP. Your eye doctor can advise you about the risks and benefits of vitamin A and about how much you can safely take.
Despite visual impairment, people with RP can maintain active and rewarding lives through the wide variety of rehabilitative services that are available today. Until there is a cure, periodic examinations by your eye doctor will help assess progress, look for complications that may develop, and keep you informed of scientifically-validated discoveries as they become known.