Retinitis Pigmentosa
and Usher's Syndrome

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Understanding the Visual

Problems of Retinitis Pigmentosa 

Richard L. Windsor, O.D., F.A.A.O.
Laura K. Windsor, O.D., F.A.A.O.
Published in Vision Enhancement Journal


Retinitis pigmentosa is a term coined by Donders in 1855. It is not one disease, rather a  group of retinal diseases with common attributes. The incident seems to be about one in every 4,000. It can be inherited by at least three different methods. Severity and speed of vision loss vary with each form of inheritance. The following are problems common to RP.  

 Tunnel Visual Field     

Progressive loss of visual fields is a hallmark of RP. The visual field loss often begins as a donut like ring in mid-periphery. As it progresses both centrally and peripherally, the resultant tunnel vision begins to affect the patient’s activities, driving and mobility. Many patients still drive automobiles in the early stages of RP, but the risks for accidents increase as the field reduces. The functional field will be worse at night and in bad weather. Even RP patients in the early stages should not drive in these situations. As the field loss progresses, daytime driving must be curtailed.  Studies suggest that on average, the visual field of the RP patient declines by 5% of the remaining field per year.    


Visual field loss can be aided with visual field awareness systems. These include the Gottlieb Visual Field Awareness System, press-on field awareness prisms and reverse telescopes. Prisms work by shifting in the images so that a small movement of the eyes allows the patient to pickup objects from the side. Reverse telescopes minify the image to fit inside the patient’s remaining field of vision. Reverse telescopes require adequate visual acuity. A visual acuity of 20/80 or better is recommended.  Reverse telescopes are considered when the visual field is less than 10 degrees.  Mobility and orientation training must also be initiated.


 The other hallmark of RP is night blindness. It may be the first presenting sign.  Our rod cells are sensitive to low light levels and these are the first cells to degenerate in RP patients. Thus at night, the RP patient’s functional field becomes much worse and problems in mobility increase.  Adding lighting around the patient’s home, carrying a broad beam flashlight and the use of infrared night scopes have all been used to aid patients at night. Since RP patients often wear tinted lenses, it is important to have clear lenses to return to at night. 

 Light and Glare Problems

 While most doctors are familiar the visual field loss and night blindness of RP, they often fail to understand the severity of the light and glare problems. When RP patients go into bright sunlight, they are often overwhelmed by “white-out” debilitating glare. They are aided by the use of dark plum and amber filters used often with side shields. RP patient also frequently report glare problems inside. Many find a light amber filter in their general wear eyeglasses improves their tolerance. A variety of filters are available. The most well known are the Corning CPF lenses.

 Double Vision

 Tunnel vision interferes in the brain’s ability to accurately control alignment of the eyes. To treat the resultant double vision, prisms and orthoptic therapy may be used. In severe tunnel vision, the patient may report seeing “two separate world.”   


 RP patients frequently develop a form of cataract. It may reduce visual acuity and increase glare. Often the RP patient simply assumes it is just the RP and fails to see his or her eye doctor. Removal of the cataracts may lessen glare and improve visual acuity.

 Decreased Visual Acuity

 A portion of RP patients, will experience a loss of central vision. One study found about one third had vision loss to a level of 20/200 or worse. The macular area may deteriorate making it difficult for the patient to see detail as in seeing a faces or reading.  Simple magnification and increased task lighting may be helpful. CCTVs, set to mimimal magnification, but with the contrast set to white letters on a black background often improves reading. These patients may also notice frequent fluctuations in their vision and describe “good days and bad days.”

 Combination of Hearing and Vision Loss

 Hearing impairment occurs frequently in RP patients. A unique syndrome of RP and profound congenital hearing loss is called Usher’s Syndrome. The combination of both loss of vision and hearing creates a much greater problem. Each must be dealt with early and careful educational intervention is required. Dorothy Stiefel has written a wonderful book on this called The Madness of Ushers Syndrome: Copying with Vision and Hearing Loss/Usher’s Syndrome Type II. 

Emotional Adjustment

 Doctors, family and the patient must understand the emotional impact of diagnosing RP. A young individual is being told that they may eventually be profoundly impaired and perhaps totally blind. Counseling may be advised. I recommend Dorothy Stiefel’s wonderful books on living with RP, Dealing with the Threat of Loss and Stress and Well-Being.  They are available in large print and cassette through  Loss Books on RP and Ushers by Dorothy Stiefel

 I welcome your question on RP or other problems causing low vision. You can reach me at . My website is


RP /Usher Related Links


Condensered.gif (846 bytes)Texas Association of Retinits Pigmentosa (TARP)  The Texas Association of Retinitis Pigmentosa, Inc., TARP is a nonprofit, 501 (c) (3) organization based in Texas. It serves as a national information sharing center to provide services to persons with progressive vision loss. Since the conception of TARP in 1979, our purpose has been to educate the public in general about eye diseases that cause blindness, and in particular, to assist individuals and their families who have just received a prognosis of Retinitis Pigmentosa and "impending blindness."

Loss Books on RP and Ushers by Dorothy Stiefel These books represent a personal portrayal of how the author overcame adversity and encroaching blindness in the prime of her life. Alone, not knowing another person affected with this slow, insidious genetic disorder, she developed her own coping strategies. Through her courage and persistence she was able to reach out to others thereby becoming known as "The RP Lady" and doctors began referring their patients to her for understanding and emotional support. She claims that attitude and faith in oneself, along with developing an indelible sense of humor, has been the key to happiness.

"We highly recommend Dorothy's books to all our RP patients!" Rich Windsor, O.D., developer of the Low Vision Gateway

Condensered.gif (846 bytes)Retinal Implant Project  The goal of the Retinal Implant Project is to develop a microelectronic prosthesis to restore some vision to patients with retinal disease, specifically macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa. The project began in 1988 as a collaboration between the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Condensered.gif (846 bytes)A Guide to Retinitis Pigmentosa

Condensered.gif (846 bytes)Retinitis Pigmentosa Eye Research Foundation  Retinitis Pigmentosa Eye Research Foundation - New Brunswick Chapter

Condensered.gif (846 bytes)Retinitis Pigmentosa International Retinitis Pigmentosa International supports research to end blindness from degenerative eye disease, promote a public awareness and education campaign, and provide human services programs to better the quality of life for those with vision loss. Retinitis Pigmentosa International publishes a quarterly newsletter The Night Lighter, and offers many pamplets on current treatments, and research in progress.





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