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Phototoxic maculopathy following uneventful cataract surgery in a predisposed patient
  1. B Manzouri,
  2. C A Egan,
  3. P G Hykin
  1. Medical Retina Service, Moorfields Eye Hospital, City Road, London EC1V 2PD, UK
  1. Correspondence to: Mr P G Hykin; phil.hykin{at}

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Operating microscope light induced foveal damage is a well recognised occurrence following ocular surgery including complicated cataract extraction, complex anterior segment procedures, and vitrectomy surgery.1 An increased risk of phototoxicity is associated with an operating time greater than 100 minutes, increased body and therefore retinal temperature, unfiltered blue light, and hyperoxaemia.2,3

We report a patient who developed a phototoxic lesion during routine cataract surgery possibly related to underlying systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and hydroxychloroquine treatment. We examine the measures taken to prevent recurrence with second eye surgery and the implications for routine cataract surgery are discussed.

Case report

A 39 year old woman presented with blurred left vision and glare. One year previously she had been diagnosed with SLE for which she had been taking hydroxychloroquine 200 mg and prednisolone 5 mg daily for 18 months. She had bilateral subcapsular cataracts and underwent routine left phacoemulsification and lens implant surgery under general anaesthesia.

Directly after surgery, the patient noted two confluent blind spots immediately below fixation in the left eye. When first seen by us the left visual acuity was 6/5, intraocular pressure was 16 mm Hg, and the eye was quiet with a well centred posterior chamber lens implant. Fundal examination of the left eye showed two well circumscribed areas of coarse mottled retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) disturbance, approximately one and a half disc diameters in size, superotemporal to the fovea (Fig 1). There was no subretinal fluid or haemorrhage associated with these lesions. A fluorescein angiogram supported these findings (Fig 2) and the lesions were felt to be consistent with photic injury.

Figure 1

Left eye showing two well circumscribed areas of coarse mottled retinal pigment epithelial disturbance.

Figure 2

Fluorescein angiogram of left eye.

The patient was keen to proceed with right phacoemulsification and lens implantation in view of anisometropia. She had stopped her hydroxychloroquine immediately after the first operation and the following precautions were agreed with the patient before surgery in the second eye: the use of the microscope filter throughout surgery, switching off the microscope light when instruments were not in the eye, tilting of the eye into downgaze (so that any phototoxic lesion would be superior to fixation and not result in a homonymous scotoma), and the maintenance of low body temperature and low inspired oxygen concentration during surgery.

An uncomplicated right phacoemulsification and lens implant was subsequently performed. Two weeks after surgery, the right visual acuity was 6/5, anisometropia was abolished, and funduscopy was normal.


Phototoxic lesions are defined as the retinal lesions produced after a relatively short exposure to an intense light source such as the operating microscope.1 Historically, these lesions were typically located inferior to the fovea as a result of the slight downgaze of the eye during extracapsular cataract surgery and a coaxial microscope beam directed inferior to the fovea.1,3,4 The incidence of retinal phototoxicity from the operating microscope has been reported at between 0% and 28%, with large series reporting angiographic evidence of retinal phototoxicity in 3–7% of cases.4

Retinal phototoxic lesions first appear as well circumscribed outer retinal whitening (oedema) with mild disturbances of the RPE often with a light border visible after a few days.4 Ophthalmoscopically, a subtle discrete margin can be seen. After the first week, lesions are characterised by coarse alterations of the RPE layer with fluorescein angiography demonstrating characteristic early discrete mottled hyperfluorescence with late staining but no leakage.4

Certain photosensitising drugs, such as hydroxychloroquine, have been reported to predispose to the development of retinal phototoxic lesions. However, there are no published reports of a similar association with systemic photosensitive conditions such as SLE. It has been suggested that patients who have SLE have increased numbers of chromosome breaks and rearrangements correlated with a low molecular weight chromosome damaging agent (clastogenic factor) present in lymphocytes that sensitises them to near ultraviolet light (360–400 nm) light.5 The presence of this photoactivated agent explains why SLE patients show an aggravation of their characteristic skin condition after exposure to sunlight. Certain pharmacological agents, such as hydroxychloroquine, which is used in the treatment of SLE, can also predispose to the development of phototoxicity. The mechanisms behind the predisposition to phototoxicity in humans of chloroquine and its derivatives are less clear. However, it is known that these drugs accumulate in the RPE layer of the retina and can cause drug induced lysosomal abnormalities including diminished vesicle fusion, diminished exocytosis, and reversible “lysosomal storage disease.”6 These two different predisposing mechanisms to phototoxicity presumably coexisted in this patient and may have significantly increased her risk.

Several procedures were undertaken to prevent the occurrence of a phototoxic lesion in the second eye. These included the use of ultraviolet filters on the microscope, although air can also be used in the anterior chamber to defocus the light from the retina as can light barriers on the cornea or in the microscope. The time and power of coaxial illumination from the microscope was minimised by turning the microscope off when instruments were not in the eye, and the patient's eye was kept in downgaze so that the operating microscope's axis was aligned off the patient's visual axis so that any phototoxic lesion would be extrafoveal and not cause a homonymous scotoma. Since animal studies have demonstrated a benefit of altering core ocular temperature,1,3 the patient's body temperature was kept low to reduce the temperature within the eye. Alternatively, irrigation solutions may be cooled relative to room temperature to help reduce intraocular temperature. It has been shown that an increase in inspired oxygen markedly enhances retinal phototoxicity and so a low inspired oxygen concentration was used for the patient during the procedure.1,3 The patient discontinued hydroxychloroquine treatment following the surgery to her left eye but ophthalmologists should be aware of the risk of phototoxic retinal lesions in patients taking photosensitising pharmacological agents particularly for underlying potential photosensitising systemic conditions. Consideration should be given to stopping treatment before surgery and taking appropriate surgical precautions.


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