People Missing An Eye Can Have ‘Phantom Eyesight’

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“Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.” —Jonathan Swift

In A Nutshell

For people who have had an eye surgically removed, perhaps to eliminate cancer, it can be completely unnerving to see images or feel pain with the missing eye. It’s called “phantom eye syndrome,” and it’s similar to the “phantom limb” feelings that amputees may experience when they lose an arm or a leg. With phantom eye syndrome, patients may complain of pain, tingling, or itching in the eye that’s gone. But many also see images out of the missing eyeball, which can feel like they’re hallucinating. Doctors aren’t sure why this happens or how to treat it.

The Whole Bushel

We’ve all had that experience of thinking our eyes are playing tricks on us. For people who have had an eye surgically removed, perhaps to eliminate cancer, it can be completely unnerving to see images or feel pain with the missing eye.

It’s called “phantom eye syndrome,” and it’s similar to the “phantom limb” feelings that amputees may experience when they lose an arm or a leg. With phantom limb, a patient feels sensations like pain, burning, or tingling in a limb that is no longer there. We’ve known about the syndrome since 1552, when a French surgeon operating on injured soldiers first described it, but modern doctors still aren’t able to successfully treat many patients. Some cases resolve by themselves. For others, doctors prescribe pain medications or other drugs, hypnosis, acupuncture, or a variety of other coping mechanisms.

With phantom eye syndrome, patients also complain of pain, tingling, and itching in the eye that’s gone. But many also see images out of the missing eyeball, which can feel like they’re hallucinating. A May 2015 study from the University of California looked at 179 patients who had an eye removed for uveal melanoma. This kind of cancer almost always occurs in Caucasians, especially those with gray or blue eyes. No one’s quite sure what causes this kind of cancer, but it doesn’t appear to be linked to sun exposure.

Of the 179 patients in the study, almost 30 percent could “see” out of the missing eye at various times. Sometimes, the sensations seemed like colors, shapes, fireworks, or kaleidoscopes. If you’ve ever closed your eyes in a dark room at night and have suddenly seen patterns, shapes, or bright bursts of color, you may have some idea what it’s like to see something that isn’t really there.

For sighted people, the light show can usually be explained by “phosphenes,” the light that glows from within our eyes. Like bioluminescent sea creatures or simple fireflies that produce their own glow, our eyes release light particles called “biophotons.” They often occur when we rub our eyes, but our eyes can’t perceive a difference between external light and the internal light from biophotons. So the optic nerve sends the light signals to our brains, which have to process the inputs. Stimulation of the brain itself can also cause phosphenes.

Although people who were always blind can’t see phosphenes, people who once had vision and then became blind may still see phosphenes. It’s just one more way our eyes seem to play tricks on us.

For patients with phantom eye syndrome, doctors can’t explain why they see shapes, colors, and patterns like we might see with phosphenes. But Mary Beth Aronow, an assistant professor of ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute, may give us a starting point by comparing the optic nerve to a jumbled bunch of wires. “When the optic nerve is severed, those connections are still firing,” Aronow told USA Today in an interview. The parts of the nerve that are still there may cause the images.

Sometimes, the visions are spooky. Certain patients have seen phantom people walking alongside them or standing by their beds when they wake up. The images may be triggered by fatigue or darkness. Some patients were able to eliminate the visions by rubbing their eyes, getting some rest, or just distracting themselves.

Show Me The Proof

USA Today: Patients who lose an eye may feel like they still ‘see’ light, color
Encyclopaedia Britannica: Phantom limb syndrome
Science Line: Why do we see colors with our eyes closed?