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Chapter 20

Eye Emergencies
Kriti Bhatia and Rahul Sharma

Eye emergencies can be classied into three major types: the red eye, the painful eye, and
visual loss.
Nausea and vomiting can be the only symptoms of acute angle-closure glaucoma, especially in elderly patients.
Topical anesthetics should not be prescribed for a painful eye disorder because their use
may lead to corneal ulcers.
Close follow-up with an ophthalmologist is essential for most eye emergencies.

Approximately 2% of ED visits involve complaints

associated with the eye or vision.1 Eye emergencies
can be categorized as the red eye, the painful eye, or
visual loss. This chapter discusses the various disorders that fall into each category. Table 20-1 summarizes the differential diagnosis and priority actions to
be taken for any patient presenting to the ED with
an eye complaint.

Light passes through the cornea and then through
an opening in the iris called the pupil. The iris is
responsible for controlling the amount of light that
enters the eye by dilating and constricting the pupil.
This light then reaches the lens, which refracts the
light rays onto the retina. The anterior chamber is
located between the lens and the cornea and contains aqueous humor that is produced by the ciliary
body. This uid maintains pressure and provides
nutrients to the lens and cornea. This uid is reabsorbed from the anterior chamber into the venous
system through the canal of Schlemm. The vitreous
chamber, located between the retina and the lens,
contains a gelatinous uid called vitreous humor.

Light rays pass through the vitreous humor before

reaching the retina. The retina lines the back of the
eye and contains photoreceptor cells called rods and
cones. Rods help vision in dim light, and cones help
vision in color. The cones are located in the center
of the retina in an area called the macula. The fovea
is a small depression in the center of the macula that
contains the highest concentration of cones. The
optic nerve is located behind the retina; it is responsible for transmitting the signals from the photoreceptor cells to the brain (Fig. 20-1).
The extraocular muscles (Fig. 20-2) help in the
stabilization of the eye. Six extraocular muscles assist
in horizontal, vertical, and rotational movements.
These muscles are controlled by impulses from cranial
nerves III, IV, and VI, which tell the muscles to relax
or contract.



More than 3 million Americans suffer from glaucoma, the leading cause of preventable blindness in
the United States.2 The term glaucoma refers to a



Head and Neck Injuries

Eye pain?
Does the patient have any visual changes, history of trauma,
or associated neurologic complaints?

Separate the etiologies into traumatic and atraumatic.

Perform a complete eye examination, including visual acuity
assessment, slit-lamp examination, and measurement of
intraocular pressure (IOP).

Decreased visual acuity?

Does the patient have any risk factors for central retinal
vessel occlusion or glaucoma?
Is there any history of recent infection or trauma?
Does the patient also have a headache or any associated
neurologic complaints?

Perform a complete eye examination, including visual acuity

assessment, slit-lamp examination, and measurement of IOP, and
a neurologic examination.

Eye trauma?
Does the patient have any evidence of increased IOP or
decreased visual acuity?

Consider computed tomography (CT) of the orbits with possible

emergency lateral canthotomy and immediate ophthalmologic

Red eye?
Is there any evidence of infection, trauma, foreign body, or
systemic illness?

Perform complete eye examination, including visual acuity

assessment and IOP measurement, and treat with appropriate
medications (see Table 20-2).





Vitreous humor




FIGURE 20-1 Anatomy of the eye (A) and retina (B).


Optic nerve head


Eye Emergencies


Superior oblique
Superior rectus

FIGURE 20-2 Extraocular muscles. (Courtesy of

Ted Montgomery, OD,

of Zinn

Lateral rectus
Medial rectus
Inferior rectus
Inferior oblique

group of disorders that damage the optic nerve,

leading to loss of vision. There are two main classications of glaucoma, open-angle and angle-closure.
Acute angle-closure glaucoma is more common in
white persons and women. African Americans,
patients older than 65 years, and people with diabetes and ocular trauma are at increased risk for openangle glaucoma. The differentiation between the two
types of glaucoma lies in the mechanism of obstruction of the outow (see later). This discussion focuses
mainly on acute angle-closure glaucoma.
When the angle of the anterior chamber is reduced,
outow of aqueous humor is blocked, resulting in
elevated intraocular pressure (IOP) with ultimate
visual compromise. Patients with a shallow anterior
chamber, hyperopic (farsighted) eyes, and eyes with
lens abnormalities such as cataracts are more prone
to acute angle-closure glaucoma. Pupillary dilation,
caused by events such as presence in a dark room, is
the most signicant event that can cause an acute
attack of glaucoma, because the accid iris can be
pushed against the trabecular meshwork, causing

With open-angle glaucoma, disease progression is

usually insidious, bilateral, slowly progressive, and


Physical examination holds the key to the diagnosis

of glaucoma. The EP should suspect disease in the
appropriate setting. Visual acuity should be recorded
in both eyes. Examination of the eye should include
a search for the classic signs of glaucoma already
described, including a mid-dilated pupil in the
affected eye and corneal haziness. The slit-lamp
should be used to estimate the depth of the anterior
chamber. If this depth is less than one fourth of the
corneal thickness, the anterior chamber angle is very
narrow. It is important to measure anterior chamber
depth in both eyes; a shallow angle in only one eye
argues against acute angle-closure glaucoma. IOP is
usually measured with a tonometer: The cornea is
attened, and pressure is determined through measurement of the force needed to atten it and of the
area attened.


Patients with acute angle-closure glaucoma may

present with sudden onset of headache or eye pain.
Occasionally, nausea and vomiting from vagal stimulation can be the dominant symptoms. Shortly after
the onset of pain, blurry vision or halos in the visual
eld may occur.
The classic physical ndings are unilateral eye
injection, especially at the limbus, a nonreactive,
midsize pupil; shallow anterior chamber; corneal
edema or haziness; and high IOP (usually 60 to
90 mm Hg). If the attack has been prolonged, ischemia of the ciliary body reduces aqueous humor
production with a resultant decrease in IOP. This
process is especially important because the ultimate
damage depends on the duration of the attack rather
than the severity of pressure elevation.


Acute angle-closure glaucoma is an ophthalmologic

emergency. Because outcome is contingent on the
duration of IOP elevation, treatment should be started
immediately. Therapy is geared toward decreasing
aqueous production, increasing aqueous outow,
and reducing vitreous volume to lower the IOP.
Topical beta-blockers such as the nonselective agent
timolol decrease aqueous production. Because these
topical agents are systemically absorbed, potential
systemic contraindications should be considered
before they are administered. Pilocarpine is a directacting parasympathomimetic miotic agent that
mechanically promotes aqueous outow. Systemic
therapy with acetazolamide, a carbonic anhydrase
inhibitor that limits aqueous humor formation, and



Head and Neck Injuries

Acute angle-closure glaucoma may manifest as
headache alone or headache as the overwhelming
Unless a search for central retinal artery occlusion
is undertaken, the patient may have further
embolic events before the diagnosis is apparent.
Even painless eye conditions can result from
serious and devastating processes.
Always assume that poor visual acuity is
attributable to a serious disease process until
proven otherwise.

mannitol, which creates an osmotic gradient between

the vitreous and the blood to cause vitreous volume
reduction, are additional components of therapy.
Surgical therapy is denitive.


Disposition of the patient is made in conjunction

with the consulting ophthalmologist. Indications for
admission include intractable nausea and vomiting
and need for careful monitoring to administer systemic agents.

Central Retinal Artery Occlusion


Retinal artery occlusion affects less than 1 person per

100,000 annually.3,4 It is most commonly caused by
an embolus from the carotid artery that lodges in a
distal branch of the ophthalmic artery. Central retinal
artery occlusion most commonly affects elderly
patients and men. Although most emboli are formed
from cholesterol, they may also be calcic, fat, or
bacterial from cardiac valve vegetations.


The visual complaints and decits resulting from

retinal artery disease are caused by ischemia. In addition to the embolic causes already described, lowow states and vasospasm may have the same visual


Sudden, painless visual loss is the classic presentation

in central retinal artery occlusion. Sometimes patients
report transient visual loss prior to complete compromise. Visual loss is usually profound. Examination can often elicit an afferent pupillary defect
(when light is shined into the abnormal eye, the
pupil of the affected eye paradoxically dilates instead

FIGURE 20-3 Central retinal artery occlusion. (Courtesy of Ted

Montgomery, OD,

of constricting). Funduscopic examination typically

demonstrates a pale retina with a cherry-red spot at
the fovea (Fig. 20-3). Complete evaluation involves
auscultation of the carotid arteries for bruits, palpation of the temporal artery for tenderness, and cardiac
auscultation and pulse palpation to detect atrial


Sudden, painless visual loss can also result from

central retinal vein occlusion, temporal arteritis, ischemic optic neuropathy, amaurosis fugax, retinal
detachment, or vitreous hemorrhage. If there is associated pain, arterial dissection should be part of the
differential diagnosis. The presence of a headache,
temporal artery tenderness, and elevated erythrocyte
sedimentation rate (ESR) suggests temporal arteritis.
Amaurosis fugax, a unilateral transient obstruction
of a retinal artery, does not cause visual loss lasting
more than 15 minutes. Ischemic optic neuropathy
causes optic disc pallor and elevation. Retinal detachment and vitreous hemorrhage cause visual disturbances such as oaters in addition to visual lossthe
occurrence of which is variable with a detached
retina. Vitreous hemorrhage causes absence of the
normal red reex of the fundus. A neurologic cause
such as cerebral infarct must also be considered.


Treatment must be initiated immediately because

visual loss is generally irreversible after 2 hours of
ischemia. Regardless, the outcome is generally poor.
Several approaches may be used. Intermittent globe
massage can be performed in an effort to dislodge
the clot and propel it distally: Moderate pressure is
applied for 5 second and then released for 5 seconds,
and the cycle is repeated. The use of anterior chamber
paracentesis for visual loss is based on the principle


Eye Emergencies


Visual acuity should be documented for
every eye complaint, no matter how minor.
Both eyes should be examined and compared
even if the complaint is monocular.
The eye examination should be thorough,
including eversion of both eyelids and inspection
for foreign bodies.

that decreased IOP allows for better perfusion of the

retinal artery and may propel the clot distally. Intravenous acetazolamide can be administered for the
same purpose. Inhaled carbogen (mixture of 95%
oxygen, 5% carbon dioxide) can be used to dilate the
vasculature, thereby increasing retinal PO2.
Other treatment options are intra-arterial thrombolysis and hyperbaric oxygen; studies have showed
limited improvement in visual outcome with early
administration of both of these treatment modalities,
however.5-8 One retrospective study reported found
that even with thrombolysis, vision did not improve
to better than 20/300 in the affected eye.5 Another
study investigated the outcomes of 32 patients with
central retinal artery occlusion, 17 of whom received
brinolysis.4 This study found that all but 6 of the
treated patients reported improvement in their visual
compromise, and only 5 of the untreated patients
had any improvement. In this study, patients with
up to 24 hours of symptoms were treated.
Patients with sudden visual loss are admitted to
the hospital so the underlying cause can be sought.

FIGURE 20-4 Central retinal vein occlusion. (From Noble J:

Textbook of Primary Care Medicine, 3rd ed. St. Louis, Mosby,

in the mornings. An afferent pupil defect is found in

the ischemic type. Funduscopic examination shows
an edematous optic disc and macular, dilated retinal
veins, retinal hemorrhage, and cotton-wool spots.
Sometimes, these ndings are called the blood and
thunder appearance of the fundus (Fig. 20-4).


The processes that must be considered in the assessment of a patient with possible central retinal vein
occlusion are the same as those for central retinal
artery occlusion. Branch retinal vein occlusion may
also occur distal to an arteriovenous crossing, with
hemorrhages developing distal to the occlusion site.

Central Retinal Vein Occlusion

No specic diagnostic test can identify central retinal

vein occlusion. Diagnosis is based on careful clinical
history and physical examination, which exclude
other processes that also cause painless visual loss.


Patients older than 50 years who have cardiovascular

disease, hypertension, glaucoma, venous stasis,
hypercoagulable conditions, collagen vascular diseases, or diabetes are at risk for central retinal vein


There are two types of retinal vein occlusion, ischemic and nonischemic. The ischemic type is also
known as hemorrhagic retinopathy, and the nonischemic type is also called venous stasis retinopathy.
The presentation and physical ndings differ according to the type of occlusion involved.


Typically, patients with ischemic retinal vein occlusion report acute and relatively profound decrease
in visual acuity. Those with the nonischemic type
present with progressively blurry vision that is worse



No effective therapeutic regimen exists for central

retinal vein occlusion. The EP should arrange for
immediately ophthalmologic consultation. A search
for a cause should be performed in order to protect
the contralateral eye from the same problem. Prognosis largely depends on the type of retinal venous
occlusionnonischemic vein occlusion, unless there
is extensive macular involvement, offers a better
outcome than the ischemic type. Spontaneous resolution may occur in some cases.
Although no specic treatment exists, a number
of interventions have been proposed and practiced.
However, these have not been based on evidence of
efcacy. Laser photocoagulation, for example, cauterizes leaking vessels with the aim of halting further
visual loss.9 This procedure can be especially helpful



Head and Neck Injuries

1. Determine whether the patients complaint is
monocular or binocular.
2. Determine whether the complaint is
3. Always ask whether the patient wears contact
lenses or glasses.
4. Always check visual acuity.
5. Determine whether physical ndings are
monocular or binocular.
6. Involve an ophthalmologist in treatment of a
patient with an eye complaint as soon as
possible if there is reasonable suspicion of a
vision-compromising process, such as acute
angle-closure glaucoma or central retinal artery

in branch retinal vein occlusions. With nonischemic

vein occlusion, attempts to reduce macular edema
can be helpful. The reduction is accomplished with
administration of topical corticosteroids. Studies
have been conducted to determine the benet of
steroids in both forms of retinal vein occlusion. Jonas
and colleagues10 conducted a prospective, comparative, nonrandomized clinical interventional study
evaluating the visual outcomes in 32 patients with
central retinal vein occlusion after intravitreal administration of triamcinolone acetate. The study included
patients with both ischemic and nonischemic forms
of retinal vein occlusion. These researchers found
that the medication resulted in temporary (up to 3
months) improvement in visual outcome but also
raised IOPs. Anticoagulants are not recommended
because they may propagate hemorrhaging.

idiopathic and multiple sclerosisrelated optic neuritis, lesions are characterized by areas of loss of myelin
sheath with preservation of axons. In acute disease,
remyelination may occur. In chronic disease, owing
to accumulation of scar tissue, the process is irreversible. Lesions in multiple sclerosisassociated optic
neuritis are pathologically the same as those in the

Symptoms of optic neuritis are usually unilateral.

Patients complain of pain, especially with eye movement. Visual loss, which can range from minimal loss
to complete loss of light perception, usually occurs
over a number of hours or days. Patients may also
experience dulling of color vision, worse vision after
exertion or exposure to steam, brief light ashes, and
central scotoma. Afferent pupillary defect is always
present. Funduscopic examination may show disc
pallor, swelling, or elevation. However, because up to
two thirds of cases are retrobulbar, the fundus can
appear normal.


Optic neuritis is inammation of the optic nerve.

Visual loss occurs because of focal demyelination of
the optic nerve. Most affected patients are between
15 and 40 years old. This disorder can be associated
with numerous diseases, including sarcoidosis, systemic lupus erythematosus, measles, leukemia, syphilis, and alcoholism; however, it is most commonly
associated with multiple sclerosis. In fact, up to a
third of patients with optic neuritis are eventually
diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and approximately
two thirds of patients with multiple sclerosis have
optic neuritis. Optic neuritis can also be idiopathic.


Optic neuritis results from an autoimmune reaction,

ultimately causing demyelinating inammation. In


Any condition that causes visual disturbance along

with eye pain must be considered in the differential
diagnosis of optic neuritis. Orbital cellulitis can cause
this clinical picture but does not include an afferent pupillary defect; furthermore, inspection alone
should allow for differentiation between the two diseases. Glaucoma can also cause the combination of
ocular pain and visual impairment. Physical examination, including assessment of pupil size and
reactivity as well as corneal inspection, allows for
distinction between glaucoma and optic neuritis.

Optic Neuritis



Unilateral, ocular pain with visual compromise

should always raise clinical suspicion for optic neuritis. If no afferent pupillary defect in found on physical examination, another diagnosis is almost assured.
Although imaging is usually not indicated, magnetic
resonance imaging (MRI) provides adequate visualization of the optic nerve.


Ophthalmologic and neurologic consultations should

be obtained if optic neuritis is suspected. The goals
of treatment are to restore visual acuity and to prevent
propagation of the underlying disease process. The
Optic Neuritis Treatment Trial was a randomized,
15-center clinical trial involving 457 patients performed to evaluate both the benet of corticosteroid
treatment of optic neuritis and the relationship of
this entity with multiple sclerosis. Use of intravenous
steroids in conjunction with oral steroids reduced the


Eye Emergencies


short-term risk of development of multiple sclerosis

as determined by MRI evaluation. There was no
reported long-term immunity from or benet for
multiple sclerosis, however. The study concluded
that although intravenous steroids have only
minimal, if any, effect on the patients ultimate visual
acuity, they do expedite recovery from optic neuritis.
Use of oral steroids alone is associated with higher
recurrence of optic neuritis. The dosage regimen recommended on the basis of study results was methylprednisolone 250 mg every 6 hours for 3 days
followed by oral prednisone 1 mg/kg/day for 11

Retinal Detachment
Retinal detachment is a true ophthalmologic emergency. Unfortunately, it is also relatively common,
affecting 1 in 300 people. Before the introduction of
and improvement in a number of treatment modalities, this entity was uniformly blinding. Early diagnosis and treatment are imperative for preservation
of vision. Retinal detachment may be associated
with vascular disorders, congenital malformations,
metabolic disarray, trauma, shrinking of the vitreous,
myopia, and degeneration, and, less commonly, with
diabetic retinopathy and uveitis. It is generally more
common in older patients. There are three different
types of retinal detachment, each associated with
different conditions.


The retina has two layers, the inner neuronal layer

and the outer pigment epithelial layer (the choroid).
Retinal detachment refers to separation of the two
layers. Rhegmatogenous retinal detachment, the most
common of the three types, is caused by a tear or
hole in the neuronal layer that leads to extrusion of
uid from the vitreous cavity into the potential space
between the two retinal layers. This is the most
common type of detachment, being more common
in patients older than 45 years and in patients with
severe myopia. When caused by trauma, this type of
detachment can affect any age group. Exudative
retinal detachment is caused by leakage of uid or
blood from within the retina itself. Predisposing
factors for this type include hypertension, vasculitis,
and central retinal venous occlusion. Traction retinal
detachment results from formation and subsequent
contraction of brous bands in the vitreous.


Retinal detachment can occasionally be asymptomatic. More commonly, patients complain of ashes of
light, oaters, or ne dots or cobwebs in their visual
elds. Visual acuity correlates with extent of macular
involvement. Vision loss is generally sudden in onset
and starts peripherally, with propagation to the
central visual eld. Retinal detachment is painless. A

FIGURE 20-5 Retinal detachment. (Courtesy of Ted

Montgomery, OD,

large detachment may cause an afferent pupillary

defect. On examination, the detached retina may
appear gray or translucent or may seem out of focus
(Fig. 20-5). Retinal folds may be seen. Visual eld
defects are variable, depending on the involvement
of the retina and macula. Left untreated, all cases of
retinal detachment progress to involve the macula,
resulting in complete loss of vision in the affected


Vitreous hemorrhage, which results from bleeding

into either the preretinal space or the vitreous cavity
itself, can be difcult to distinguish from retinal
detachment. Complaints with this disorder range
from oaters or cobwebs in the visual eld to severe,
painless loss of vision. Vitreous hemorrhage without
concomitant retinal detachment should not, however,
cause an afferent pupillary defect. Ophthalmoscopy
usually demonstrates discoloration (ranging from
reddish to black) with fundal structural details difcult to discern. Therapy for vitreous hemorrhage
consists of bedrest with head elevation followed by
possible interventional procedures such as laser photocoagulation and cryotherapy.
All macular disorders can cause painless vision
loss. They manifest as loss of central vision with
peripheral vision preservation as well as ndings of
retinal abnormalities. A careful history and physical
examination can exclude macular degeneration as a
cause of central visual loss. Funduscopic examination
in age-related macular degeneration shows the presence of drusensmall, yellow masses scattered on
the retina. A gray-green subretinal neovascular membrane may also be seen. Inammatory processes
involving the retina often cause inammatory proteins to ll the vitreous, making it appear cloudy.


The sooner treatment is initiated for retinal detachment, the greater the chance of visual preservation



Head and Neck Injuries

Tips and Tricks

Perform slit-lamp
examination prior to uorescein examination, to
prevent false-positive results of assessment for
corneal abrasions.
Apply local anesthetic (e.g., tetracaine) to
facilitate a slit-lamp examination.
A cotton-tipped applicator can be used to evert
the upper eyelid.
Never send a patient home with topical
anesthetic eyedrops, which can raise the risk for
further injury.

and recovery. After detachment, retinal ischemia

ensues because of loss of the choroidal blood supply.
Patients with suspected or conrmed retinal breaks
or detachments require emergency ophthalmologic
consultation. Laser photocoagulation or cryotherapy
is often used to create small burns around the area
of detachment to prevent further leakage of uid
between the retinal layers. Intraocular gas is sometimes used to tamponade the tear. These procedures
are approximately 95% effective in halting the disease
process.12 Surgical repair may be necessary to repair
the tear and simultaneously remove the traction
forces at work on the retina.

Temporal Arteritis
Temporal arteritis, an inammatory condition that
occurs from a generalized vasculitis of medium and
large arteries, typically affects patients older than 50
years. This condition is also called giant cell arteritis.
There is a female preponderance. Temporal arteritis
occurs in as many as 1 of every 2000 people. Although
mortality is not affected by the condition, it can
cause blindness. Up to 75% of patients with visual
compromise due to temporal arteritis would eventually have contralateral visual impairment if not
treated. Temporal arteritis is commonly, though not
uniformly, associated with polymyalgia rheumatica.


Vessels affected by giant cell arteritis are inltrated

with lymphocytes, plasma cells, and multinucleated
giant cells in patches or segmental patterns. A cellmediated immune response is thought to account for
the vascular changes seen with this disorder. Inammation of the branches of the ophthalmic artery,
especially the posterior ciliary artery, leads to ischemic optic neuritis, compromising vision. The central
retinal artery is also often affected. Inammation of
the temporal artery causes the classic headache associated with this diagnosis.


Unilateral headache, jaw or tongue claudication,

constitutional symptoms including anorexia and
malaise, and visual impairment are common presenting symptoms of temporal arteritis. Occasionally,
visual loss is preceded by amaurosis fugax. Patients
with polymyalgia rheumatica may also complain of
pain and stiffness in the shoulders or hips.
Examination may demonstrate tenderness and
decreased pulsations over the involved temporal
artery. Funduscopic ndings may be normal or may
consist of optic disc edema or pallor, scattered cottonwool spots, ame-shaped retinal hemorrhages, and
distended retinal veins. An afferent pupillary defect
may be present. Evaluation of vision often detects
horizontal eld defects and involvement of the extraocular muscles.


For patients who do not have visual complaints, a

differential diagnosis for headache must be investigated. Migraines, tension headaches, and subarachnoid hemorrhage may mimic temporal arteritis.
Palpation of the temporal artery along with a careful
history, including questions about jaw symptoms,
may allow for the distinction. Because temporal arteritis is a medical emergency associated with high
morbidity if not recognized and treated promptly, it
must be denitively excluded on the basis of history
and physical or laboratory ndings before the
patients symptoms are attributed to another entity.
Acute angle-closure glaucoma is also high on the differential diagnosis list, whether or not visual symptoms are present. Occasionally, headache can be the
dominant symptom of glaucoma. In glaucoma,
however, physical examination should nd a middilated, nonreactive pupil with corneal haziness and
a shallow anterior chamber.


Although temporal arteritis can rarely be accompanied by a normal ESR, this parameter is almost always
elevated. The upper limit of normal ESR increases
with age. A rough approximation of the upper limit
of normal for men is age in years divided by 2. For
women it is age in years plus 10, with the sum divided
by 2, or half the age in years plus 5. Elderly patients
with new-onset headaches, visual loss, and elevated
ESR should always be treated for temporal arteritis.
Generally, the ESR is higher than 80 mm/hr in the
presence of temporal arteritis. Temporal biopsy conrms presence of the disease. Early on, however,
biopsy ndings may be normal.


Treatment of temporal arteritis should never be

delayed to await biopsy because outcome is contin-


gent upon early medical treatment. Initial treatment

should be given with prednisone 60 to 80 mg
or high-dose intravenous methylprednisolone. The
exact duration and regimen of steroid therapy are
determined on a case-by-case basis. Generally, treatment is continued until symptoms improve and ESR
begins to normalize. It has also been suggested that
methotrexate, iniximab, and aspirin may also halt
progression of visual symptoms, but further studies
are necessary to establish practice patterns.13

Orbital Cellulitis and

Periorbital Cellulitis
Without proper treatment, orbital cellulitis causes
blindness and death in approximately 20% of
patients. Because the venous drainage of the orbital
regions occurs through communicating vessels into
the brain via the cavernous sinus, infection can progress rapidly with devastating consequences. Differentiating orbital from periorbital (preseptal) cellulitis
can be difcult but is important because the outcomes of the two entities, and therefore their treatments, are different.


Orbital cellulitis is inammation of any of the tissues

within the orbit posterior to the orbital septum,
whereas preorbital cellulitis is conned to the tissues
anterior to the septum. Making this distinction is
extremely important for management. Owing to the
gravity of the potential consequences of orbital cellulitis and the fact that most cases of orbital cellulitis
have a concomitant periorbital component, the EP
evaluating an infected, erythematous orbit should
always assume that the patient has orbital cellulitis
until it can be denitively excluded.
Approximately 75% of orbital and periorbital cellulitides have identiable antecedent causes. Sinusitis
is the most common predisposing condition. Because
the inferior, medial, and superior walls of the orbit
lie adjacent to the sinuses, it is easy to understand
how extension of infection may occur. The ethmoid
sinus most commonly involved. Infection from
trauma or surgery with direct inoculation and hema-

FIGURE 20-6 Orbital cellulitis. (From Long SS, Pickering LK,

Prober CG [eds]: Principles and Practice of Pediatric Infectious
Diseases, 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Churchill Livingstone, 2003.)

Eye Emergencies


togenous spread from other sources of bacteremia are

other methods of acquiring the infection. The pathogen involved is contingent upon the mode of infection. Aerobic, nonspore-forming organisms are most
frequently the culprits. Anaerobic organisms tend to
be causative when infection results from chronic


Patients with infection limited to the periorbital

tissues typically present with erythema, edema, and
warmth of the external eye tissues. Although usually
unilateral, infection can be bilateral. There may
be constitutional symptoms, including fever and
malaise. The presence of ocular pain, ophthalmoplegia, and pain with extraocular movement suggests
orbital involvement. Patients with orbital infection
may also have decreased visual acuity and pupillary
paralysis. They may have elevated IOPs, preseptal
(periorbital) cellulitis, conjunctival injection, and
proptosis (Fig. 20-6).


Signs of periorbital infection can be similar to those

of allergic periorbital swelling, especially when there
is bilateral involvement. With allergy, there may be
cobblestoning on the interior aspect of the upper lid,
and the condition should improve with administration of diphenhydramine or another antihistamine.
It can be difcult to distinguish orbital cellulitis from
subperiosteal and orbital abscesses and even from
cavernous sinus thrombosis, which carries a dismal
prognosis. With subperiosteal abscesses, the globe is
often displaced by the abscess; the displacement
should be obvious on inspection. Orbital abscesses
are located in the postseptal tissues. They may cause
obvious pus, signicant ophthalmoplegia, and exophthalmos as well as globe displacement. Cavernous
sinus thrombosis typically starts unilaterally and progresses to contralateral involvement. Examination
should detect dilation of the episcleral vessels and
venous engorgement of the fundus; the pupil may be
xed and dilated. Depending on the time course,
orbital neoplasm with associated inammation may
cause similar symptoms.



Head and Neck Injuries


In many cases, it may be possible to exclude orbital

involvement on the basis of the history and physical
examination alone. If there is any doubt or the suspicion of another entity or complication such as
abscess is present, computed tomography (CT) is the
diagnostic modality of choice. It is not necessary to
use intravenous contrast. MRI is another acceptable
mode of diagnosis.


In adults, preorbital infection should be treated with

oral antibiotics and close outpatient follow-up should
be arranged. An antibiotic that provides coverage for
staphylococci, streptococci, and Enterobacteriaceae
is appropriate. Orbital cellulitis should be treated
with broad-spectrum intravenous antibiotics; the
patient should be admitted to the hospital; and consideration should be given to incision and drainage
if imaging reveals a collection. For periorbital infection in children, there should be a lower threshold
for admission. Patients with mild periorbital cellulitis
can be discharged with arrangements for extremely
close outpatient follow-up. For patients with more
involved cases, including any underlying comorbidities, admission for observation should be seriously

The Red Eye

An injected, red eye signals an inammatory reaction. Fortunately, most inammation is self-limited
and can be treated on an outpatient basis. The specic cause, treatment, course, and prognosis, as well
as the impact on vision, depend on the underlying
cause (Table 20-2).
This discussion focuses on conjunctivitis, the
diagnosis for 30% of patients presenting to the ED
with ocular complaints. When there is corneal
involvement as well, the process is called


An eye appears red because of dilation of blood

vessels. Ciliary injection, caused by dilation of
branches of the anterior ciliary arteries, indicates
corneal, iris, or ciliary body inammation. Conjunctival injection results from the more posterior, supercial conjunctival vessels. Because of the conjunctivas
more supercial location, vascular dilation causes
more dramatic injection there than in the ciliary
Conjunctivitis refers to inammation of the mucous
membrane that lines the anterior sclera and inner
eyelids. The conjunctiva is a key player in maintaining lubrication of the eye. Infection can result in
scarring and abnormal tear formation in the affected

Conjunctivitis can have a viral, bacterial, fungal,

toxic, chemical, or allergic cause. The presentation
and treatment differ with the underlying etiology.
Sometimes it may be difcult to determine the underlying cause.


Generally, bilateral conjunctivitis signies an infectious or allergic cause. However, this is not always the
case. Viral infection is the most common cause of
conjunctivitis. Adenovirus infection, which is highly
contagious, is extremely common. Patients have signicant injection, itching, irritation, and watery discharge. They may have accompanying preauricular
adenopathy. Patients often have associated mild systemic symptoms because the conjunctivitis occurs in
concert with a viral syndrome. Epidemic keratoconjunctivitis, which may cause pseudomembranes, is
caused by adenovirus types 8 and 19; this is the
classic pink eye. Patients are contagious for up to 2
Herpes simplex conjunctivitis manifests as unilateral conjunctival injection with clear discharge.
Patients complain of foreign body sensation and
photophobia. With gross inspection alone, it may be
impossible to distinguish herpes simplex from other
viral causes. Patients may have facial or lid vesicles.
This infection can spread rapidly, causing corneal
damage, which manifests as a dendritic pattern on
uorescein examination. Depending on the location,
size, and depth of corneal involvement, patients may
have decreased visual acuity.
Herpes zoster ophthalmicus is caused by activation of the virus along the ophthalmic branch of the
trigeminal nerve. The vesicular rash is present along
the involved dermatome, resulting in forehead and
upper eyelid lesions. Lesions on the tip of the nose,
called Hutchinsons sign, signify involvement of the
nasociliary branch of the fth nerve. The presence of
Hutchinsons sign indicates a much higher likelihood
of ocular involvement (76% risk compared with 34%
risk in the absence of such lesions). Fluorescein
examination may show punctate, ulcerated, or dendritic corneal lesions (Fig. 20-7).
Patients with bacterial conjunctivitis present with
conjunctival erythema, foreign body sensation, purulent drainage, and morning crusting of the eye. They
usually do not have photophobia or loss of visual
acuity. The most common causative organisms
are Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, and Haemophilus
(although with immunization, this last pathogen is
decreasingly seen).
Gonococcal infection usually results in unilateral
conjunctival injection, copious purulent discharge,
and edema and erythema of the lids. The patient
populations usually affected are infants, health
care workers, and sexually active young adults. The
amount of discharge helps distinguish gonococcal
infection from other bacterial pathogens. Patients
may have associated urethral discharge or arthritis.





Acute AngleClosure Glaucoma

Acute Anterior


Traumatic Iritis

Foreign Body

Ocular pain


Moderate to severe

Moderate to severe


Moderate to severe

Moderate to severe

Moderate to severe

Visual acuity

Usually normal

May be reduced

Severely reduced

Mildly reduced

Moderately to
severely reduced

Mildly reduced

May be reduced





Can be hazy


Can be hazy

Clear or abrasion



Constricted if
uveitis present

Dilated unreactive
to light

Constricted with
poor response to

Constricted if
uveitis present

Constricted, weakly

Normal if no globe






Not usual, except

with infectious


Not usual unless



Focal or diffuse





Focal or diffuse

Intraocular pressure




Usually normal but

can increase if
not treated


Can be increased



Pain medications
Antibiotics if
bacterial, antiviral
if herpes, ocular
decongestants if
Supportive care with
articial tears if

Pain medications;
steroid therapy
in consultation
Eye shield to
protect the eye

Decrease in IOP,
pain medications

Pain medications,
steroid therapy in
consultation with

Antibiotics if
present, pain

Cycloplegics and
steroids in
consultation with

Pain medications,
removal of foreign
body, tetanus status
antibiotics if corneal
abrasion present



Eye Emergencies




Head and Neck Injuries

FIGURE 20-7 Herpes zoster ophthalmicus. (From www.

Some basic tenets should be followed in the treatment of conjunctivitis, with separate consideration
for the specic cause as detailed later.
Often, treatment is supportive. Cold compresses
help with swelling and lid discomfort. Broadspectrum antibiotic drops are used for bacterial conjunctivitis and often to prevent superinfection with
other organisms. Erythromycin is appropriate for
uncomplicated cases. A uoroquinolone that provides coverage against Pseudomonas should be given
to contact lens wearers. Topical corticosteroids should
be prescribed only after consultation with an ophthalmologist and should never be used in a patient
with suspected or conrmed herpes infection. Articial tears alleviate keratitis and photophobia.

Pseudomonas aeruginosa infection should be suspected in patients who are immunosuppressed or

wear contact lenses. Usually, a sticky, mucopurulent,
yellow-green discharge is present. The cornea should
be carefully inspected for ulceration because corneal
perforation with progression of the infection is a
major concern with this organism.
Fungal pathogens that cause conjunctivitis include
Actinomyces, Aspergillus, Candida, Coccidioides, and
Mucor (in diabetic patients). These should be considered in any immunosuppressed patient as well as any
patient who has sustained eye trauma with vegetable
matter. Examination may show a corneal inltrate
with underlying endothelial plaque and hypopyon,
which is the presence of pus cells in the anterior
Chlamydial conjunctivitis is fairly common, especially in sexually active young adults. It is also a
common cause of neonatal conjunctivitis. Patients
may have associated gonococcal disease and thus
should be asked about urethral discharge and arthritis. Patients with chlamydial conjunctivitis present
with scant seropurulent eye discharge and fair to
moderate conjunctival injection. Preauricular
adenopathy is occasionally associated with this
Allergic conjunctivitis gives rise to signicant pruritus and chemosis. Generally there is an associated
clear discharge, in varying amounts. Cobblestoning
may be seen on the inner eyelids.


Diagnosis of conjunctivitis is based on history, physical examination, and appropriate exclusion of other
causes of red eye. It is important, in the correct
setting, to perform a thorough examination to rule
out both other causes of red eye and potential complications of conjunctivitis such as corneal ulceration. When there is concern for particularly virulent
pathogens, Gram stain and cultures may be



Adenovirus infection requires supportive care, with

cool compresses, decongestants, and lubricants, as
well as topical antibiotics to prevent superinfection.
Owing to the high transmissibility of adenovirus,
care should be taken to prevent contamination of the
other eye and of others. Cases of adenovirus conjunctivitis can be managed on an outpatient basis.

Herpes Simplex Conjunctivitis

Ophthalmologic consultation is indicated immediately for patients with herpes simplex conjunctivitis.
The ophthalmologist may consider mechanical
dbridement. Topical antivirals such as vidarabine
3% and triuridine 1% are prescribed in consultation
with an ophthalmologist.

Herpes Zoster Ophthalmicus

The EP should consult an ophthalmologist about a

patient with herpes zoster ophthalmicus. Systemic
antiviral agents are indicated early in the disorder.
Corticosteroid therapy may be considered in consultation with the ophthalmologist.

Uncomplicated Bacterial Conjunctivitis

Supportive care with warm compresses and lubricants should be given as needed for bacterial conjunctivitis. Topical antibiotics should be prescribed.
The multiple choices include erythromycin, sulfacetamide 10%, gentamicin 0.3%, polymyxin B
neomycinbacitracin (Neosporin), and ciprooxacin.
Use of neomycin solutions is associated with a relatively high incidence of hypersensitivity. Coverage
against Pseudomonas should be included for contact
lens wearers.

Gonococcal Conjunctivitis

Gonococcal conjunctivitis should be considered a

systemic condition. Affected patients require emer-


Eye Emergencies


gency ophthalmologic consultation, and hospital

admission is usually indicated. Treatment involves
topical and parenteral antibiotic therapy and frequent eye irrigation to prevent corneal perforation.
In some situations, patients are given one dose of
intramuscular ceftriaxone and are then discharged
after receiving topical antibiotics, instructions for eye
rinsing, and arrangements for close follow-up.

Chlamydial Conjunctivitis

Like gonococcal infection, chlamydial conjunctivitis

requires systemic therapy. Treatment involves oral
and topical antibiotics. In neonates, systemic therapy
is effective for concomitant pneumonitis.

Fungal Conjunctivitis

For a patient with fungal conjunctivitis, the EP should

consult with an ophthalmologist about prescribing
an appropriate topical agent, such as natamycin 5%
suspension. Patients with this eye disorder require
close follow-up.

Allergic Conjunctivitis

Patients with allergic conjunctivitis need supportive

care with compresses and ocular decongestants.
Diphenhydramine therapy can also be effective.

Corneal Abrasions
Corneal abrasions are one of the most common
ocular injuries, accounting for 10% of ED visits
related to ocular complaints. They result from scraping away of the corneal epithelium through contact
with a foreign body or application of a moving force,
such as rubbing over a closed lid. Most corneal abrasions heal spontaneously without long-term sequelae;
on occasion, scarring, however, and permanent epithelial damage, ensue. Corneal abrasions are more
common in contact lens wearers.


Abrasions are defects in the corneal surface that are

typically limited to the epithelial layer. Sometimes,
the bulbar conjunctiva is also affected. Severe injuries
can involve the deeper, thicker stromal layer of the


Common complaints of patients with corneal abrasions include photophobia, foreign body sensation,
pain, and tearing. Conjunctival injection and blepharospasm may or may not be seen. Depending on the
location and size of the abrasion, patients may also
complain of decreased visual acuity. Fluorescein
examination demonstrates the abrasion as a staining

FIGURE 20-8 Corneal abrasions. (From Goldman L, Ausiello D

[eds]: Cecil Medicine, 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Saunders, 2007.)

defect (Fig. 20-8). If a linear abrasion is noted, the EP

should carefully search for a retained foreign body
on the inner side of upper eyelid. Corneal ulceration
should be excluded with a slit-lamp examination,
especially in contact lens wearers. A topical anesthetic should be administered to facilitate the


All entities that cause eye pain should be included in

the differential diagnosis for corneal abrasion. Because
erythema and changes in visual acuity may or may
not be present, the differential diagnosis has to be
tailored to the individual case. Examination and
measurement of IOPs should eliminate glaucoma as
a cause of the symptoms. Slit-lamp examination
demonstrates cells and are in the anterior chamber
in a patient with iritis. Lack of inltrate and ulcer
morphology excludes corneal ulcer. The EP should
carefully look for a foreign body in order to eliminate
it as a cause of the complaints.


Providing comfort for the patient is the goal of treatment for corneal abrasion. Although topical antibiotics may be administered to facilitate evaluation,
patients should never be discharged with such medications. Continued use of topical ocular anesthetics
may cause injury through loss of protective reexes
and drying of the eye. Systemic analgesia should
be prescribed as needed. Studies have suggested
that topical nonsteroidal anti-inammatory drugs
(NSAIDs) also provide relief and may reduce the need
for oral narcotic agents. A cycloplegic agent such as
homatropine provides relief from photophobia and
The practice of routinely prescribing topical antibiotics for corneal abrasions to prevent corneal ulceration is not clearly evidence-based, although some
studies have suggested that it is benecial. For
example, a prospective study investigating the incidence of corneal ulceration in close to 35,000 patients



Head and Neck Injuries

diagnosed with corneal abrasions demonstrated that

none of the patients who received antibiotics had
ulceration. Contact lens wearers should be treated
with agents that provide coverage against Pseudomonas. Eye patching should be avoided, especially in
contact lens wearers and patients whose abrasions
were cause by organic material, because it may
encourage infection. Evidence suggests that patching
may be harmful, but current data are not available.
Patients with abrasions should discontinue contact
lens wear during the healing period.
Tetanus prophylaxis is a long-standing component
of corneal abrasion treatment. Evidence suggests that
this practice is not routinely indicated. In the absence
of infection, corneal perforation, or devitalized tissue,
there is no benet to routine administration of a
tetanus booster. However, current Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines recommend a tetanus booster within 5 years if the event
causing the corneal abrasion involved a dirty instrument such as vegetable matter and within 10 years if
the corneal injury was caused by a clean, uncontaminated vector.14,15 Patients with corneal abrasions can
be discharged with arrangements for close outpatient

Corneal Ulcers
Generally, corneal ulcers are infectious in etiology.
A corneal ulcer is an ophthalmologic emergency
because the diagnosis carries the risk of permanent
visual impairment and eye perforation. Risk factors
for corneal ulcer include eye trauma, known infection, contact lens wear, and immunosuppression.


The same conditions that must be considered in the

differential diagnosis for patients with corneal abrasions must be considered for those with corneal


Immediate ophthalmologic consultation should be

obtained for a patient with corneal ulcer. Some ophthalmologists advocate discharge with follow-up the
next day. A cycloplegic agent such as homatropine is
given for comfort. Frequent topical antibiotic therapy
should be prescribed. The typical regimen involves
administration of the drop every 1 to 2 hours until
the follow-up appointment the next day.


Even seemingly minor trauma to the cornea can create

a break, which serves as a port of entry for bacteria.
Conditions such as lack of lubrication and malnutrition make the cornea more susceptible to injury.

FIGURE 20-9 Corneal ulcers. (From Auerbach PS [ed]:

Wilderness Medicine, 5th ed. Philadelphia, Mosby, 2007.)


Corneal ulcers cause signicant eye pain, ciliary

injection, tearing, foreign body sensation, blurry
vision, and photophobia. Eyelid swelling and purulent drainage may be present. Depending on the location and extent of the lesion, visual acuity may be
decreased. Inspection may show eyelid swelling and
erythema. Large ulcers can be seen as round or oval
white spots on the cornea with the naked eye.
Fluorescein and slit-lamp examinations demonstrate
a corneal defect, usually with sharply demarcated
borders and a gray appearance to the inltrated ulcer
base. On anterior chamber examination, hypopyon
or are consistent with iritis is often seen. With the
exception of the classic dendritic lesions seen with
herpes simplex virus infection, there are no pathognomonic signs or symptoms to diagnose the etiology
of the ulcer seen on examination (Fig. 20-9).

Ocular Foreign Bodies

Corneal foreign bodies are generally supercial and
they do not cause long-term morbidity. However, if
they are allowed to remain in place for a long enough
time, infection, tissue necrosis, and scarring may


Objects, especially those projected with considerable

force, may become embedded in the corneal epithelium or deeper into the stroma. The irritation triggers
a cascade of events including vascular dilation, which
manifests as conjunctival injection and lid edema.


Typical symptoms of ocular foreign body include

pain, photophobia, tearing, conjunctival injection,
and foreign body sensation. Examination may show
conjunctival injection, a visible foreign body, corneal
epithelial defect, and corneal edema. White blood
cell mobilization may occur and can be detected as


Eye Emergencies


magnication with the slit-lamp. The EP should

approach the foreign body with the removal device
held parallel to the surface of the eye to avoid inadvertent perforation. Retained rust rings after removal
of a metallic foreign body must be removed with a
rust ring drill; an ophthalmologist should be consulted for this maneuver.
After foreign body removal, the patient should be
given topical antibiotics. Patching of the eye for
comfort is not necessary and is strictly contraindicated in the presence of severe corneal injury because
it may foster infection. Pain control should be adequate, and arrangements should be made for prompt

FIGURE 20-10 Rust ring seen after removal of metallic foreign

body. (Courtesy of Ted Montgomery, OD, www.tedmontgomery.

anterior chamber are and presence of cells. Visual

acuity can be decreased. Metallic foreign bodies can
cause visible rust rings (Fig. 20-10).


The conditions that may mimic corneal abrasion and

corneal ulceration must also be considered in the
patient with ocular foreign body. Application of
topical anesthesia blunts or obliterates the pain and
photophobia associated with supercial corneal processes. This response can be helpful in distinguishing
among various eye disorders.


Diagnosis of ocular foreign body is based on history

and physical ndings. If there is concern about a
foreign body that is not visible, especially an intraocular foreign body, CT should be obtained. MRI is
contraindicated if it is possible that the foreign body
is metallic. Ultrasonography can be used to visualize
a supercial foreign body, but this modality is limited
by type of particle as well as possible obscuration of
ndings by processes such as subconjunctival hemorrhage. A Seidel test should be performed to look for
corneal rupture if deep projection is suspected. The
lids should be everted and a possible lodged foreign
body sought.

Intraocular Foreign Body

More than three fourths of intraocular foreign bodies
enter the eye through the cornea. Suspicion of such
a foreign body is based on patient complaints as well
as history. Injuries associated with mechanical grinding, drilling, and hammering should raise the possibility of intraocular foreign body. Intraorbital and
intracranial injury should always be considered in
the patient with intraocular injury.
The extent and process of eye damage depend on
the object involved and the area penetrated. Because
of gravity, the inferior aspect of the eye is more
commonly injured. The composition of the object
involved affects local tissue reaction. Inert substances
such as glass cause less reaction than organic materials. Metallic and magnetic substances are most
Patient presentations also vary according to the
factors just described. Patients often complain of discomfort or pain deep within the eye. Presence of
obvious abnormalities on inspection, such as conjunctival injection, is variable. Visual acuity is also
contingent upon the area involved. Careful slit-lamp
and funduscopic examinations should be performed
to search for the object. An abnormally shaped pupil
is suspicious for globe rupture.
CT is the imaging modality of choice if it is necessary to search for the injury or to more closely ascertain its specics. Ultrasonography can be helpful
with relatively supercial objects. Plain radiographs
cannot distinguish between intraocular and extraocular positions of a foreign body. MRI cannot be used
if there is any suspicion the foreign body may be


Treatment consists rst of removal of the foreign

body. Topical anesthesia should be used, and a cycloplegic agent considered. Supercial foreign bodies
are removed with a spud or needle. A cotton-tipped
applicator should be used with great caution because
it may propagate abrasion owing to its large surface
area. The foreign body should be removed under


If the eye with the foreign body appears externally

normal, inspection alone excludes several painful eye
disorders, such as iritis. Application of topical anesthetics should not affect the pain caused by intraocular foreign bodyin contrast to the pain of a corneal
foreign body or abrasion. A careful examination
can exclude glaucoma as the cause of the patients



Head and Neck Injuries


An ophthalmologist consultation should be sought

immediately. The patient should not eat or drink,
and antibiotics and pain medications should be
administered. Tetanus status should be updated as
necessary. Generally, intraocular foreign bodies are
surgically removed. The technique and approach are
chosen by the ophthalmologist. The patient with an
intraocular foreign body should be admitted to the

Ocular Burns
Ocular burns, which include burns to the sclera, conjunctiva, cornea, and lids, can be damaging to visual
integrity as well as cosmesis. Burns may be chemical,
thermal, or from radiation exposure. The method
and extent of damage vary with the cause.


Burns cause tissue damage by denaturing and coagulating cellular proteins and through vascular ischemia. Thermal burns usually cause supercial
epithelial destruction, but deep penetration can
occur. Radiation injury causes punctuate keratitis,
which is extremely painful. Patients with radiation
ocular burns report exposure to sun lamps, tanning
booths, high altitudes, or welders arcs. Acidic burns
cause coagulation necrosis, which serves as a barrier,
limiting the extent of penetration. Alkaline chemicals can cause devastating injury. Such a chemical
causes liquefaction necrosis that continually penetrates and dissolves tissue until the chemical is
removed. At pH values greater than 11.5, damage is
generally irreversible.


Patients usually complain of eye pain and limited

visual acuity. Examination in the acute phase often
shows corneal cloudiness and scleral whitening. The
eye may be erythematous or whitened. There may be
ndings consistent with anterior chamber reaction,
chemosis, and vascular engorgement. Radiation burn
or ultraviolet keratitis causes intense pain, tearing,
photophobia, blepharospasm, and foreign body sensation. Physical ndings include punctate lesions on
the corneal epithelium, conjunctival injection, and
decreased visual acuity. Thermal burns are almost
always limited to the corneal epithelium.


The history of exposure usually leads to a clear diagnosis. Radiation burns are not always so clear-cut
because symptoms develop 6 to 10 hours after exposure to the light source. Other conditions to consider
are iritis, glaucoma, corneal ulcer, corneal abrasion,
and retained foreign body. Slit-lamp and uorescein

examinations allow for differentiation among the

various entities.


Type of chemical burn can be diagnosed with determination of pH of the affected eye. Findings depend
on concentration of the chemical and duration of
exposure to it. Most burns can be diagnosed from
history alone. Radiation burns can be a bit more challenging to diagnose owing to extreme patient discomfort. Providing adequate topical analgesic should
enable examination.


The most important component of treatment for

chemical burns is copious irrigation. Eye irrigation
should be started immediatelywith no waiting
even for measurement of visual acuity. After irrigation for 30 minutes, the pH should be checked. The
EP should not withhold irrigation or delay initiation
even if the patient underwent prehospital irrigation.
Irrigation should continue until a normal pH is
recorded. Once a normal pH is obtained, the measurement should be repeated 10 to 15 minutes
later to conrm neutrality. Topical anesthetics and
manual lid retraction may be necessary for proper
After adequate irrigation, a complete examination
of the eye, including slit-lamp examination and
determination of visual acuity, should be performed.
Patients with minor burns can be discharged home
with topical antibiotics, oral analgesics, and cycloplegics as necessary with arrangements for follow-up in
24 hours. An ophthalmologist should be consulted
for all but the most minor ocular burns. Severe burns
may cause secondary glaucoma, which is treated in
consultation with the ophthalmologist. Patients
with severe burns require admission for monitoring, including IOP measurements, and adequate
Most thermal burns, which are relatively minor
and restricted to the lid and corneal epithelium, can
be treated the same as corneal abrasions. Initial irrigation may provide relief. Topical antibiotics, oral pain
medications, and cold compresses should be provided. Patients can be discharged with outpatient
follow-up. An ophthalmologist should be consulted
for more severe burns.
Radiation burns are treated with cycloplegic agents
and topical antibiotics. Eye patching can be considered for comfort. Oral pain medications should be
prescribed. Topical anesthetics delay healing and can
lead to corneal ulcer formation. Follow-up in 24 hours
should be arranged.

Retrobulbar Hematoma
Retrobulbar hematoma is bleeding in the potential
space surrounding the globe. It results from blunt


Eye Emergencies

trauma as well as from retrobulbar injection and

operative intervention. This entity can compromise
vision, so immediate recognition and intervention
are warranted. Bleeding typically results from injury
to the infraorbital artery or one of its branches. Accumulation of blood results in an increase in pressure,
ultimately compressing blood vessels and other structures. The compression leads to optic nerve and
central retinal artery ischemia. With trauma, concomitant orbital wall fractures serve to decompress
the hemorrhage, thereby sparing vision.


Severe eye pain, nausea, vomiting, diplopia, and

decreases in both visual acuity and eye movement
are common complaints at presentation in a patient
with retrobulbar hematoma. Physical ndings include
proptosis, decreased ocular motility, visual loss, elevated IOP, and hemorrhagic chemosis. An afferent
pupillary defect is common (Fig. 20-11).

Retrobulbar hemorrhage


Clinical examination suggests the diagnosis. If there

is doubt about the diagnosis, CT can be performed
to demonstrate the hematoma.


The rate of development of retrobulbar hematoma

dictates the treatment. If the condition develops over
minutes, the eye must be decompressed immediately
via lateral canthotomy (Fig. 20-12). If the process is
slower and develops over hours, conservative management can be effective. This consists of head elevation, ice packs to reduce swelling, intravenous
acetazolamide and mannitol, and topical betablockers. Progress is monitored through serial measurements of IOPs and pupillary reactivity. An
ophthalmologist should be notied for consultation
as soon as the diagnosis is suspected. Patients with

FIGURE 20-12

Lateral canthotomy.

FIGURE 20-11 A and B, Retrobulbar hematoma. (B from
Pacic University: Online Optometry Education. Available at




Head and Neck Injuries

retrobulbar hematoma are admitted to the hospital

to monitor progress.

Accumulation of blood in the anterior chamber is
called hyphema. Traumatic hyphemas, which can
occur from both blunt and penetrating mechanisms,
are generally caused by a ruptured iris root vessel.
Spontaneous hyphemas are most commonly associated with sickle cell disease and neovascularization
of diabetes. Even small hyphemas can signal signicant injury.


Patient symptoms and examination ndings correlate with the size of the hyphema. Typically, patients
complain of eye pain, decreased visual acuity, and
photophobia. If the patient is upright, the hyphema
usually layers out in the inferior portion of the anterior chamber. Depending on the size of the hyphema,
it can be seen with either the naked eye or a slit-lamp
examination. If the hyphema is large, IOP can be
elevated. Generally, there is no afferent pupillary
defect (Fig. 20-13).


Diagnosis is made by visualization of blood in the

anterior chamber.


All patients with hyphemas should be seen by an

ophthalmologist. The goal is to stop damage to the
visual process by preventing or curbing elevations of
IOP. The patients head should be elevated to allow
inferior settling of the red blood cells. This settling
will prevent trabecular meshwork clogging. The pupil

should be dilated to avoid pupillary playmovements of the iris to accommodate changing light
conditions; this step should be taken with consultation from the ophthalmologist. Dilation does not
block drainage of aqueous humor in normal eyes.
Topical beta-blockers should be used to lower IOP.
Topical alpha-agonists, topical carbonic anhydrase
inhibitors, and systemic acetazolamide or mannitol
may also be considered. Adequate should be given
analgesia, with care taken to avoid aspirin and other
antiplatelet agents.
Surgery may be necessary if IOP elevation is refractory to medical therapy or to remove a large clot.
Almost all patients with hyphema are admitted to
the hospital for bedrest and observation. Consultation with an ophthalmologist may determine that a
patient with an extremely small hyphema can receive
outpatient management. The major complication of
hyphema is rebleeding after 2 to 5 days, when the
initial clot loosens, resulting in potentially severe
elevations in IOP. This is the rationale behind hospital admission.

Orbital Wall or Blow-out Fractures

Blunt force to the orbital region can raise intraorbital
pressure, relief of which is accomplished by fracture
of the orbital walls. The inferior and medial walls are
most frequently involved. Orbital contents slip into
the corresponding sinus, the maxillary sinus for inferior wall fractures and the ethmoid sinus for medial
wall fractures. Concomitant facial injuries should be
sought in a patient with an orbital wall or blow-out
fracture (Fig. 20-14).

Presentation in orbital wall or blow-out fracture can

be highly variable, ranging from mild swelling and
ecchymosis to impairment of vision. Patients may
have tenderness with palpation of the orbit. Subcutaneous orbital emphysema can often be found by
examination. Inferior wall fractures can cause entrapment of the inferior rectus and inferior oblique
muscles and orbital fat. Patients may have restricted
upward gaze and diplopia, anesthesia of the ipsilateral cheek and upper lip, and ptosis. Epistaxis and
diplopia can be seen with medial wall fractures. On
rare occasion, orbital emphysema can have a mass
effect, compressing the optic nerve and causing

FIGURE 20-13 Hyphema. (From Auerbach PS [ed]: Wilderness

Medicine, 5th ed. Philadelphia, Mosby, 2007.)



A Waters view radiograph can show indirect signs of

fracture: cloudy sinus, a bulge extending from the
orbit into the maxillary sinus (the teardrop sign), or
an air-uid level in the maxillary sinus. CT is the
diagnostic study of choice because it demonstrates
the fracture as well as the other injuries.


Eye Emergencies


FIGURE 20-14 Orbital wall/blow-out fracture.


Immediate surgery is not necessary. Indications for

surgical repair include muscle entrapment and cosmetic deformity with signicant enophthalmos.
Surgery is delayed to allow for abatement of swelling
and a better examination. The preferred time frame
for operative repair is 10 to 14 days, which optimizes
the balance of reduced swelling with the absence of
scar tissue formation. Administration of prophylactic
antibiotics for an orbital wall or blow-out fracture
without evidence of sinus infection is controversial.
Data are inadequate for a denitive recommendation, as review of 214 studies to examine this very
question found.16,17

Ruptured Globe
Globe rupture involves a full-thickness defect in the
cornea and/or sclera. Penetrating mechanisms are
almost always involved. Rarely, enough force is generated by a blunt injury that transmission of the force
results in eventual rupture. This entity is a true ophthalmologic emergency and always requires surgical
Sharp objects and objects traveling at considerable
velocity have the potential to perforate the globe
directly. Any projective injury can cause globe
rupture. Signicant blunt force can result in
globe compression with resultant IOP increases sizeable enough to tear the sclera. Such injuries typically
occur where the sclera is the thinnest, such as at
muscle insertion sites or sites of previous surgery.


Patients with globe rupture complain of eye pain and

decreased visual acuity. Because this entity is associated with a high rate of concomitant orbital oor
fractures, patients may report diplopia. Rupture may
not be easily apparent on examination. Finding of a
shallow anterior chamber on slit-lamp examination,
hyphema, and an irregular (teardrop) pupil are possible ndings. A Seidel test can identify wound leaks
from the anterior chamber.


Diagnosis is not always easy. History and the physical

ndings described lead to the diagnosis. Although
not always indicated, CT can detect occult tears as
well as retained foreign bodies. Plain radiographs
may show foreign bodies.


Direct pressure should never be applied to a globe

that is suspected or conrmed to be ruptured, because
of the risk of extrusion of intraocular contents.
A protective eye shield should be placed, and an
ophthalmologist should be contacted immediately.
The patients tetanus status should be checked and
updated if necessary, and a dose of prophylactic antibiotics should be given to prevent endophthalmitis.
Because skin ora is typically involved in infections
of a rupture globe, cefazolin or ciprooxacin plus
clindamycin are good choices. Adequate antiemetics
should be given to prevent Valsalva maneuvers.
Surgery is performed expeditiously, and all patients
with globe rupture are admitted to the hospital.

Traumatic Iritis
Blunt ocular trauma can contuse and irritate the iris,
with resultant ciliary spasm. Symptoms usually start
1 to 4 days after the injury.


Eye pain and photophobia are the most common
patient complaints in traumatic iritis. Patients report
impaired vision. Evaluation shows perilimbal conjunctival injection, cells and are in the anterior
chamber, and a constricted, weakly dilating pupil.


Treatment involves administration of a long-acting

cycloplegic agent such as homatropine 5%, a topical



Head and Neck Injuries


The patient with a red eye should seek evaluation
by the primary care physician because this
disorder has several benign and serious causes.
If the pain worsens, visual acuity decreases, a
discharge appears, or a fever occurs, the patient
should immediately return to the ED for
Patients at high risk for eye problems (e.g., those
with diabetes) should be encouraged to obtain
yearly eye examinations. More information for
patients with diabetes is available from the
American Diabetes Association (www.diabetes.

steroid chosen in consultation with an ophthalmologist, and oral analgesics. Patients can be discharged
with arrangements for ophthalmologic follow-up.

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