Tunnel Vision (Loss of Peripheral Vision)

The term “tunnel vision” is used to describe a constricted field of vision where you are able to see straight ahead, but vision to the sides, or peripheral vision, is lost.

Also referred to as peripheral vision loss or tubular vision, tunnel vision is much like looking through a small tube. Individuals with tunnel vision often have a difficult time navigating in dim lighting, like when in a dark movie theater.

Children in focus with blurred sides.
NEI

This article explains the causes of tunnel vision. It also discusses whether tunnel vision is an emergency, as well as what it’s like living with this condition.

What Causes Tunnel Vision?

Many conditions can lead to tunnel vision. These may include:

  • Retinal detachment, an emergency that occurs when a layer of tissue in the back of the eye becomes separated from the blood vessels that provide it with oxygen
  • Glaucoma, a group of conditions that can lead to blindness and is often caused by higher than normal eye pressure
  • Optic neuritis, an inflammation of the optic nerve, or fibers that carry visual messages to the brain
  • Retinitis pigmentosa, a rare inherited eye disease that causes damage to the back of the eye, or retina
  • Blood loss to certain parts of the brain or eye
  • A tumor, or abnormal tissue growth, pressing on the optic nerve
  • Stress and anxiety, which can worsen existing tunnel vision or cause it
  • Brain trauma
  • Stroke
  • Migraine, or a type of headache that can cause light and sound sensitivity

True tunnel vision is most often associated with severe glaucoma, retinitis pigmentosa, optic neuritis, and retinal detachment. 

An often under-reported cause of tunnel vision is pseudotumor cerebri, or false brain tumor. This condition occurs when pressure around the brain increases due to fluid buildup around the brain and spinal cord. This may cause vision problems and headaches.

Extremely stressful situations, like having a panic attack, can sometimes lead to tunnel vision. Experiencing high acceleration, which can impact fighter pilots and those participating in certain extreme sports, may also cause tunnel vision.

Is Tunnel Vision an Emergency?

Any type of vision loss or visual disturbance can be quite alarming. The sudden onset of tunnel vision can be very dangerous and should be treated as a medical emergency.

However, when tunnel vision develops in relation to gradual vision loss associated with certain eye conditions, like glaucoma, it is not considered a medical emergency. Your eye doctor will keep a close watch of vision changes while you are under treatment

What Tunnel Vision Feels Like

Peripheral vision plays an important role in sensing motion outside of your line of sight without turning your head. This can help with driving, playing sports, and generally moving around without bumping into things.

If an individual has tunnel vision, they will need to use great caution when navigating their environment. Driving, reading, playing sports, moving around in dim lighting, and walking around may feel difficult without peripheral vision. They may also feel startled when being approached from the side.

Tunnel Vision Treatment

In some cases, vision loss can be permanent. However, there are still ways to improve your quality of life. Depending on the underlying condition, tunnel vision may be treated with:

  • Eye drops to reduce glaucoma-related eye pressure
  • Eyeglasses, prism lenses, and magnifiers to help reduce peripheral vision loss
  • Steroids to help reduce inflammation associated with optic neuritis
  • Laser treatment, an eye procedure, that may help with glaucoma and retinal detachment
  • Surgery to help drain the fluid in the eye to lower glaucoma-related eye pressure
  • Electronic retinal implants, a surgery that helps restore part of the lost visual field in those with retinitis pigmentosa
  • Oral and nasal drugs that reduce inflammation associated with migraines, as well as preventative treatments like injections and medical devices that target how the brain processes pain
  • Anti-anxiety medication and psychotherapy to help reduce symptoms of anxiety and stress

Coping With Tunnel Vision

It’s important to treat the underlying cause of tunnel vision if possible. You can also use coping strategies like these.

  • Make sure you see your eye doctor on a regular basis to ensure your eyes are healthy.
  • Keep potentially dangerous furniture or objects put away to make sure your home is as safe to navigate as possible.
  • Consider joining a support group to connect with others going through similar experiences.
  • Use visual rehabilitation services, which can be helpful for people who have difficulty with vision-related tasks.

Summary

Tunnel vision, or loss of peripheral vision, is most often caused by certain eye conditions. However, other conditions can also lead to tunnel vision.

Tunnel vision should be treated as a medical emergency, unless it develops due to gradual vision loss associated with an eye condition.

Tunnel vision can impact how an individual navigates their environment and can make certain tasks, such as driving, especially difficult. Sometimes treatment can address the underlying cause of tunnel vision.

A Word From Verywell

If you suddenly develop tunnel vision, seek medical attention as soon as possible. Although this condition may not be able to be reversed, early treatment could prevent further vision loss. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are symptoms of tunnel vision?

    The main symptom of tunnel vision is the loss of peripheral vision. However, depending on the cause, some may also experience blurred vision, as well as needing more light to see properly.

  • Is tunnel vision caused by anxiety?

    Anxiety and stress can worsen existing eye conditions, including tunnel vision. Long term high levels of stress and anxiety may also be a major cause of conditions associated with tunnel vision, like glaucoma.

  • What does it mean when you lose peripheral vision in one eye?

    Loss of peripheral vision can impact one or both eyes due to a variety of conditions. Sudden loss of peripheral vision in one eye should be treated as a medical emergency.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Troy Bedinghaus, OD
Troy L. Bedinghaus, OD, board-certified optometric physician, owns Lakewood Family Eye Care in Florida. He is an active member of the American Optometric Association.