Retinitis Pigmentosa: Diagnosis, Treatment and Recovery
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Retinitis Pigmentosa, also referred as the disorder of the retina (light sensing part of the eye) is a genetic condition that begins in childhood. It is dictated by genetic defects resulting in loss of the light-sensing cells of the retina- the rods and cones. The onset of this disease gives patients a similar sensation to what most of us feel when walking into a dark movie theatre on a sunny day—but for patients with RP, the adjustment takes much more time to make. Because RP patients are sensitive to changes in light, moving around during twilight can be very hard for them. As the condition advances, peripheral vision (the ability of a patient to see on the side) diminishes, creating a sort of tunnel vision, that, in later stages becomes complete blindness.
Retinitis Pigmentosa is usually diagnosed when a patient comes to the ophthalmologist complaining of these symptoms. A specialized test called the ‘electroretinogram’ (like an EKG of the heart) looks at the electric signals generated by the retina (since the light-sensing cells of the retina convert light to chemical and then electrical signals). In people suffering from the disease, the test shows a decreased function of the rods and cones in the retina.
Retinitis Pigmentosa is a neurodegeneration of the retina, just like macular degeneration, that starts affects about one hundred thousand people in the United States. It is a devastating disease for those who suffer from it. There are numerous ineffective treatments that are available but so far, nutrition works the best.
Ineffective Treatment Options
As with many devastating diagnoses, those with Retinitis Pigmentosa will often try anything, however unsuccessful. There are people with RP who have also lined up to enter a cage full of specially bred bees to improve their vision, keeping the nape of their neck exposed so that the bee stings could be concentrated in that area for it to work. Not too long ago in Russia, amniotic membrane from placentas was used as a treatment for RP, as was genetic material extracted from yeast. Even more recently, in Cuba, ozone therapy often with electrostimulation (i.e. a shock with electricity to the eyes, followed by pumping toxic ozone gas into the bloodstream) has been promoted. However, these options are not at all effective in treating retinitis pigmentosa.
Viable Treatment Options
All human brain cells, nerve cells and retinal cells are made of more than 70 percent fat, much of it a special kind of fat called fatty acids. Fatty acids are found in all sorts of oils, including canola, corn oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, animal fat, fish oils etc. There are two types of essential fatty acids: omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. There is also a third type: omega-9 oils. All three differ in molecular configuration, which gives them very different properties. Omega-3 oils are typically referred to as the good fatty acids while omega-6 oils are the ‘bad’ ones, found in chocolate chip cookies as well as cheese, meats and crackers. These omega-6 oils promote inflammation, blood clotting, and abnormal blood vessel growth.
Omega-3 oils are involved in many processes throughout the body and are believed to decrease heart disease, improve blood flow, reduce cholesterol, help prevent stroke, decrease inflammation and block the growth of abnormal blood vessels. Omega-3 oils are also essential for the retina. One of the most important components of these special oils, called docosahexaenoic acid—DHA for short—is found in fish oils.
Numerous research studies have demonstrated the benefits of omega-3 oils and DHA, which are very important in the development of the eye in infants (and the developing brain). They may decrease the risk and severity of dry eye. A few studies have shown that they may decrease the risk of macular degeneration, and one study even found in people with macular degeneration, the drusen can actually decrease in those who took a concoction consisting of omega-3 oils. In Retinitis Pigmentosa, more than a handful of clinical trials have looked at the effects of omega-3 oils and DHA and while the jury is still out, there is evidence to demonstrate a slowing of the progression of RP in those who take omega-3 oils and DHA.
However, very high amounts of omega-3 oils increase the risk of bleeding by blocking platelet activities. Diabetics should use caution as omega-3 oils can increase blood sugars. Milder side effects of omega-3 oils include upset stomach, heartburn, abdominal bloating, diarrhoea and skin rashes.
Carotenoids and Vitamin A
Carotenoids and Vitamin A are often highly recommended against Retinitis Pigmentosa by ophthalmologists. While there are hundreds of different types of carotenoids, in general, carotenoids are derived from plants. They are pigments in the plants, like the powerful antioxidant lycopene, the red carotenoid found in tomatoes, watermelon and grapefruit. Saffron is also loaded with other carotenoids and is a powerful antioxidant and there is a good reason to believe that it can protect retinal cells from injury.
Research conducted on more than six hundred people with RP have also found that in those who started out with milder disease, taking higher amounts of vitamin A can decrease the rate of progression of visual field loss and slowed the deterioration of photoreceptors (as measured by the electroretinogram test).
Taurine and Turmeric
A growing body of evidence suggests that Taurine, an amino acid, can help rescue injured neurons in the retina. Taurine, one of the most concentrated protein building blocks in the retina, grabs on to vitamin A and transports it to the photoreceptors in the retina. After vitamin A gets used up by these rods and cones, taurine picks up the spent vitamin A and takes it out for recycling. Further, Turmeric contains a biologically active component called curcumin and other curcuminoids (curcumin-like molecules), powerful antioxidants with anti-inflammatory activities, particularly in neural tissue such as the retina. It can also activate genes within cells.
Some other viable treatment options include-
- Coleus forskohlii—a mint that promotes survival of neural cells.
- Coenzyme Q10—a compound that is essential for energy production and debris digestion.
Despite our knowledge of defects in nearly two hundred genes that cause RP, there are no cures or effective medical interventions, other than nutrition. Follow the above practices to prevent Retinitis Pigmentosa.
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