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Papilledema is a swelling of the optic nerve, at the point where this nerve joins the eye, that is caused by an increase in fluid pressure within the skull (intracranial pressure). Swelling of the optic nerve due to other causes such as infection or inflammatory disease is not called papilledema.


The optic nerve is the nerve that transmits signals from the eye to the brain. Papilledema is a swelling of this nerve where it meets the eye (the optic disc) caused by an increase in intracranial pressure. Almost all cases of papilledema are bilateral (affect both eyes). Papilledema can be observed in people of any age, but is relatively uncommon in infants because the bones of the skull are not fully fused together at this age.

Causes and symptoms

Papilledema is caused by an increase in the pressure of the fluid (cerebrospinal fluid) that is present between the brain and the skull, inside the head. This increase in intracranial pressure may be caused by any of a variety of conditions within the skull, brain, or spinal cord. The most common causes of papilledema are:
  • tumor of the brain, spinal cord, skull, spinal column, or optic nerve
  • abscess (the accumulation of pus within a confined space)
  • craniosynostosis (an abnormal closure of the bones of the skull)
  • hemorrhage (bleeding)
  • hydrocephalus (an accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid within the skull)
  • intracranial infection (any infection within the skull such as meningitis and encephalitis)
  • head injury
The symptoms of papilledema include:
  • headaches, which are usually worse upon awakening and exacerbated by coughing, holding the breath, or other maneuvers that tend to increase intracranial pressure.
  • nausea and vomiting.
  • changes in vision, such as temporary and transient blurring, graying, flickering, or double vision


A diagnosis of papilledema is achieved by visual examination of the eye with an ophthalmoscope. This instrument shines light through the pupil of the eye and illuminates the retina while the clinician looks through it. Eye drops to dilate the pupils are used to insure a thorough examination.


Treatment of papilledema is generally aimed at the treatment of the underlying disorder that is causing papilledema.
Diuretic drugs combined with a weight reduction program may be useful in cases of papilledema that are caused by an abnormally high production of cerebrospinal fluid.
Corticosteroids have been shown to be effective in relieving the symptoms in some patients with papilledema caused by inflammatory disorders.

Alternative treatment

Alternative treatments for conditions that cause the occurrence of papilledema include acupuncture, aromatherapy, hydrotherapy, massage, and herbal remedies.


With prompt medical care to treat the underlying cause of papilledema, a person affected with papilledema will not have permanent damage to his or her eye-sight. However, prolonged papilledema can result in permanent damage to the optic nerve which could lead to blindness.


Preventing papilledema is only possible if the underlying condition causing the papilledema can be found. Treatment of this underlying condition may prevent recurrences of papilledema.

Key terms

Craniosynostosis — A premature closure of one or more of the joints (fissures) between the bones of the skull, which causes an abnormally shaped skull.
Hydrocephalus — The accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid within the skull.
Ophthalmoscope — A medical instrument which shines a light through the pupil of the patient's eye and illuminates the retina (back) of the eye, allowing a visual examination of the interior of the eye.



Rhee, Douglas J., and Mark F. Pyfer. The Wills Eye Manual. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 1999.


Agarwal, A. K., et al. "Papilledema." Journal of the Indian Academy of Clinical Medicine 1 (October-December 2000): 270-277.


National Eye Institute. 2020 Vision Place, Bethesda, MD 20892-3655. (301) 496-5248.


Giovannini, Joseph, and Georgia Chrousos. "Papilledema." eMedicine. May 12, 2001.


a circular or rounded flat plate; often spelled disc in names of anatomic structures.
articular disk a pad of fibrocartilage or dense fibrous tissue present in some synovial joints.
Bowman's disk one of the flat plates making up a striated muscle fiber.
choked disk papilledema.
ciliary disk pars plana.
embryonic disk (germ disk) (germinal disk) a flattened round bilaminar plate of cells in the blastocyst of a mammal, where the first traces of the embryo are seen; called also embryonic or germinal area.
herniated disk see herniated disk.
intervertebral disk the layer of fibrocartilage between the bodies of adjoining vertebrae; see also herniated disk.
intra-articular d's articular disk.
Merkel's d's small cup-shaped tactile receptors in the skin that are particularly sensitive to continuous pressure.
optic disk the intraocular part of the optic nerve formed by fibers converging from the retina and appearing as a pink to white disk in the retina; there are no sensory receptors in the region and hence no response to stimuli. Called also blind spot.
ruptured disk herniated disk.
slipped disk popular term for herniated disk.


Edema of the optic disc, often due to increased intracranial pressure.
Synonym(s): choked disc
[papilla + edema]


/pa·pil·le·de·ma/ (pap″il-ĕ-de´mah) edema of the optic disk.


[pap′ilədē′mə] pl. papilledemas, papilledemata
Etymology: L, papilla + Gk, oidema, swelling
swelling of the optic disc, visible on ophthalmoscopic examination of the fundus of the eye, caused by increase in intracranial pressure. The meningeal sheaths that surround the optic nerves from the optic disc are continuous with the meninges of the brain; therefore increased intracranial pressure is transmitted forward from the brain to the optic disc in the eye to cause swelling. Also spelled papilloedema.
enlarge picture


 Opthalmology Swelling of the optic nerve and optic disk, indicating ↑ intracranial pressure on the optic nerve, often linked to brain tumors


Edema of the optic disc, due to increased intracranial pressure.
Synonym(s): choked disc, papilloedema.


Edema of the optic disc.
Synonym(s): choked disc, papilloedema.
[papilla + edema]

papilledema (pap´ilədē´mə),

n swelling of the optic disc caused by increased intracranial pressure.


edema and hyperemia of the optic disk, usually associated with increased intracranial pressure; called also choked disk.