Ocular melanoma patients report seeing images and shapes
Fireworks. Reeds underwater. An unknown man.
Patients reported seeing these very images with an eye that was surgically removed due to a rare eye cancer called uveal melanoma, according to recent research published in the journal Ophthalmology.
The phenomenon, known as phantom eye syndrome, occurs in a high number of patients who have undergone surgery called enucleation to remove an eye due to injury or disease. The study found that 60 percent of the 179 eye cancer patients who underwent this surgery reported experiencing one or more phantom symptoms, which included seeing images, pain or "visual sensation." One-third said they could see shapes and colors out of the eye no longer present. Some even felt they could see people out of the eye that was removed.
"We were surprised by how common the symptoms were," said ophthalmologist Bertil Damato, M.D., Ph.D., study co-author and director of ocular oncology at the University of California, San Francisco.
What is phantom eye?
Phantom eye syndrome is somewhat similar to phantom limb syndrome. The brain projects sensory information, making it seem as though it comes from an amputated limb or organ — in this case, an eye that has been removed. However, the reasons behind these sensations remain a mystery to scientists.
"We still do not know why the brain creates images and pain from an eye that is not there," said lead author Laura Hope-Stone, health psychologist at the Liverpool Ocular Oncology Centre at the University of Liverpool, where the research was performed.
About a third experienced these symptoms daily, usually in darkness or when fatigued. In almost half of all patients, the symptoms ceased spontaneously, but some could stop the sensations by rubbing their eyes, blinking or sleeping. The phantom sensations often started several weeks after the eye is removed, eventually subsiding over time.
Phantom eye syndrome occurred more commonly in younger people. Pain was reported more often by women, patients who experienced discomfort in the eye area before the surgery and by those who were anxious or depressed. Interestingly, roughly 20 percent found these sensations pleasant, but a similar number were disturbed.
Important information for patients
Dr. Damato said the study highlighted the importance of counseling for patients undergoing the surgery.
Ophthalmologists need to make patients aware that they may experience visions that seem to be coming from their phantom eye afterward, and reassure them that the images are not a result of other issues such as mental illness.
"Patients experiencing pain after this surgery may be suffering from excessive anxiety or depression and may benefit from support by a psychologist," Dr. Damato said.