Bashed, Blind and Bulging

aka Ophthalmology Befuddler 033

A 35 year-old martial artist presents with loss of vision in his right eye after being on the wrong end of a spinning back fist.

Examination of the right eye reveals the following:

  • He is unable to detect light when the eyelids are passively opened.
  • There is a relative afferent pupillary defect affecting the right eye.
  • Extraocular movements are markedly reduced.
  • Tonometry reveals an intraocular pressure of 45 mmHg.

His right eye looks like this:

ophthalmology befuddler 035


Q1. What is shown and what is the likely diagnosis?

The right eye appears proptosed with a dilated pupil, extensive subconjunctival hemorrhage and bloody chemosis, as well evidence of periorbital swelling and hematoma.

The likely underlying diagnosis is:

Retrobulbar hemorrhage due to trauma, resulting in acute orbital compartment syndrome.

Hemorrhage into the potential space within the rigid orbit and around the eye transmits pressure onto the optic nerve. Acute orbital compartment syndrome occurs when this results in a compressive optic neuropathy.

The main differentials are:

  • ruptured globe
    proptosis and raised intraocular pressure are not consistent with this
  • orbital blowout fracture
    raised intraocular pressure, RAPD and decreased visual acuity are not seen in this condition unless there is coexistent retrobulbar hemorrhage.

Q2. What are the clinical features of this condition on history?


  • Symptoms — pain, decreased vision, inability to open the eyelids due to severe swelling.
  • Cause —- history of trauma or surgery to the eye or orbit, or retrobulbar injection.
  • Risk factors for spontaneous hemorrhage — bleeding disorder, anticoagulants and anti-platelet drugs, pregnancy.

Q3. What are the clinical features of this condition on examination?


  • Visual acuity and visual fields — decreased with dyschromatopsia (signs of optic neuropathy)
  • External exam — Proptosis with resistance to retropulsion, diffuse subconjunctival hemorrhage, tight eyelids (rock hard) with echymosis and chemosis.
  • Extraocular eye movements — limited extraocular motility
  • Pupils — RAPD.
  • Tonometry — increased intraocular pressure (IOP)
  • Funduscopypapilloedema from compressive optic neuropathy may be present, retinal artery or vein occlusion.

Q4. What investigation should be performed and what are the typical findings?

Retrobulbar hemorrhage with acute orbital compartment syndrome is primarily a clinical diagnosis.

CT orbit (axial and coronal views) can confirm the diagnosis — but if vision is threatened treat first!

Usual findings on CT:

  • diffuse, increased reticular pattern of the intraconal orbital fat rather than a discrete hematoma.
  • teardrop or tenting sign is ominous — it occurs when the optic nerve is at maximum stretch and distorts the back of the globe into a teardrop shape.

Q5. What is the treatment of this condition?

Admit to hospital and treat with aggressive decompression.

Therapy depends on whether there is compressive optic neuropathy or severely raised IOP:

  • Evidence of optic neuropathy or severely raised IOP (>40 mmHg) —
    lateral canthotomy and cantholysis should be performed immediately (ideally by an ophthalmologist); use procedural sedation in the ED if it does not cause a delay.
  • No evidence of optic neuropathy but IOP is raised (e.g. >30 mmHg) —
    treat with agents used to lower IOP (e.g. topical timolol, acetazolamide, mannitol; see acute glaucoma).

McInnes and Howes suggest the DIP-A CONE-G mnemonic for remembering the indications and contra-indications for this procedure:

  • Primary indications:
    - Decreased visual acuity
    - Intraocular pressure > 40 mm Hg
    - Proptosis
  • Secondary indications:
    - Afferent pupillary defect
    - Cherry red macula
    - Ophthalmoplegia
    - Nerve head pallor
    - Eye pain
  • Contraindications:
    - Globe rupture

Q6. how is a lateral canthotomy/ cantholysis performed?

The main steps in emergency canthotomy/ cantholysis are:

  • use local anesthetic but warn the patient that they may feel pain
  • Perform the canthotomy:
    • place the scissors across the lateral canthus and incise the canthus full thickness
  • Perform cantholysis:
    • Grasp the lateral lower eyelid with toothed forceps
    • Pull the lower eyelid anteriorly
    • Point the scissors toward the patient’s nose, place the blades either side of the lateral canthal tendon, and cut.

Cantholysis is done more by feel than by visual identification of landmarks — the lower eyelid will come completely away from the globe once the tendon has been completely severed.

The procedure is described more fully here by McInnes and Howes.

A video showing a lateral canthotomy and cantholysis being performed:


  • Ehlers JP, Shah CP, Fenton GL, and Hoskins EN. The Wills Eye Manual: Office and Emergency Room Diagnosis and Treatment of Eye Disease (5th edition). Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2008.
  • Johnson D, Schweitzer K, Sharma S. Ophthaproblem: Can you identify this condition? Retrobulbar hemorrhage. Can Fam Physician. 2009 Jun;55(6):605, 607. PMID: 19509203; PMCID: PMC2694083.
  • Marx JA, Hockberger R, Walls RM. Rosen’s Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice, 7th edition (2009) Mosby, Inc. []
  • McInnes G, Howes DW. Lateral canthotomy and cantholysis: a simple, vision-saving procedure. CJEM. 2002 Jan;4(1):49-52. PMID: 17637149. [fulltext]
  • NSW Statewide Opthalmology Service. Eye Emergency Manual — An illustrated Guide, 2007. [link to free pdf]
  • Pramanik, S. Assessment and Management of Ocular trauma. [fulltext]
  • Perry M. Acute proptosis in trauma: retrobulbar hemorrhage or orbital compartment syndrome — does it really matter? J Oral Maxillofac Surg. 2008 Sep;66(9):1913-20. PMID: 18718400.
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  1. Adam Ash says


    Can you tell me which of your references stated the CT findings for retrobulbar hematoma?


    • says

      I think the CT descriptions are from the Will’s Eye Manual in the chapter on trauma (traumatic retrobulbar hemorrhage). Interestingly, some experts call into question whether retrobulbar hemorrhage post-trauma is actually hemorrhage, in many cases it may actually be retrobulbar edema (see Perry, 2008).


  2. Matt Flannigan says

    Hi Chris-

    I like your case report for the 35 year-old martial artist that had a retrobulbar hemorrhage. Would it be o.k. if I used your image of the hemorrhagic chemosis in an ocular ultrasound textbook chapter that I’m planning to write?

    Thank you for considering,

    Matt Flannigan, DO
    Assistant Ultrasound Program Director
    Michigan State University- Grand Rapids Emergency Medicine Residency