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Posted: May 13, 2011

Keeping Seniors Healthy

Poor Eyesight Can Trigger Vivid Hallucinations

Q. There’s no question that my Mom’s eyes have started to go, but now she says she’s been hallucinating and is afraid to tell anyone (but me) about it. Any ideas?

Hallucinations can be a symptom of a variety of problems -- both physical and mental. They can be caused by schizophrenia, dementia, depression, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, fever, drugs, and alcohol. You should see a doctor immediately about this symptom.

You wrote that your mother’s hallucinations started with impaired vision. Visual loss (worse than 20/60 in both eyes) is a common cause of hallucinations, too. However, research suggests that it is more likely to appear if you have visual acuity between 20/120 and 20/400.

About one in 10 people with vision problems has hallucinations. It is suspected that this phenomenon is under-reported because victims fear they are losing their minds and don’t want their doctors to know.

Complex hallucinations among people with vision loss is called Charles Bonnet Syndrome (CBS). Charles Bonnet was a Swiss philosopher. In 1760, he described this condition in his 89-year-old grandfather who was blinded by cataracts.

These hallucinations can strike at any age, but usually affect seniors. The most likely reason that the syndrome affects the elderly is the prevalence of visual problems in this age group. The common conditions leading to CBS are age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma and cataract.

It’s common for vision-related hallucinations to be doozies -- odd people, animals, panoramas, bizarre images right out of the most phantasmagorical dreams.

These images -- sometimes called visual hallucinations -- can range from elaborate images to less-complex line patterns. The pictures appear suddenly and can last for hours.

The visual hallucinations often stop within a year to 18 months. However, it is difficult to predict the frequency of the hallucinations and how long they will persist.

Today, CBS is not widely known, even among physicians. One reason for this phenomenon is that many of those who hallucinate keep it to themselves.

There is no cure for CBS. The best way to handle the syndrome is to reassure victims that the weird images are a symptom of eye disease, not mental illness.

The syndrome is sometimes called “phantom vision” and it is compared to phantom limbs. Amputees can have sensations from limbs they no longer have. Similarly, when retinal cells become impaired and are no longer able to receive and relay visual images to the brain, the visual system begins firing off images on its own.

A research study in the Netherlands found that people used a variety of techniques to deal with CBS. If you believe you are suffering from the syndrome, try these:

  • Close your eyes and then open them.
  • Look away from the image quickly.
  • Walk away from the image or approach it.
  • Stare at the image.
  • Turn a light on.
  • Concentrate on something else.

Believe it or not, some got relief by shouting at the image or trying to hit it.


Fred Cicetti is a freelance writer who specializes in health. He has been writing professionally since 1963. Before he began freelancing, he was a reporter and columnist for three daily newspapers in New Jersey. He has written two published novels: Saltwater Taffy, and Local Angles. You can send your health-related questions to Fred at fred@healthygeezer.com.

© 2011 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.
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