Doctors Find Crescent Wound On Woman’s Eye After She Burned Her Retina Watching The Solar Eclipse

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The bizarre crescent-shaped wound sustained by 26-year-old Nia Payne during the total solar eclipse in August has recently been described in a scientific paper by researchers at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

The study, published on December 7 in the journal JAMA Ophthalmology, aims to understand how a solar eclipse can cause eye damage by analyzing the affected retina with state-of-the-art technology.

Payne suffered the eye injury while attempting to view the solar eclipse on August 21. At the time, the young woman was in Staten Island, New York, trying to take a glimpse of the historic eclipse. Unfortunately, she wasn’t adequately prepared to watch the event and didn’t have the proper protective glasses.

According to the Washington Post, Payne stared directly into the sun — which at that moment was only 70 percent obscured by the moon — for about six seconds before she borrowed a pair of glasses from a woman nearby.

However, these glasses, through which she glanced at the sun for another 15 to 20 seconds, were not the recommended type of eclipse glasses, the media outlet points out.

Four hours later, Payne noticed that her vision had become blurry in both her eyes and that she could only see a crescent-shaped black spot, similar to the eclipse itself, notes a Mount Sinai news release.

Three days after watching the solar eclipse, during which time the black spot in her vision persisted, Payne was diagnosed with solar retinopathy at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai.

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As explained in the study, the first of its kind, solar retinopathy is “a rare form of retinal injury that occurs after direct sungazing,” and for which there is no beneficial treatment.

The Mount Sinai doctors took detailed scans of Payne’s retinas with the help of a groundbreaking technology called adaptive optics (AO), which allowed them to analyze the eye damage at a cellular level.

Through AO imaging, the doctors were able to examine in real time the microscopic structures of Payne’s eyes, a procedure that, until recently, wasn’t possible in living patients and which could only be performed under a microscope, shows the Mount Sinai news release.

“We have never seen the cellular damage from an eclipse because this event rarely happens and we haven’t had this type of advanced technology to examine solar retinopathy until recently,” explained Avnish Deobhakta, study co-author and assistant professor of ophthalmology at Mount Sinai.

The doctors discovered the sun’s rays had produced photochemical burns, essentially burning a hole in Payne’s retina.

Astonishingly, the burn sustained from the solar eclipse matched the shape of the black spot that Payne reported had obstructed her vision.

“What we found is that the sun’s rays had damaged the photoreceptor layer in a very specific pattern, like a crescent,” Deobhakta said in a different statement.

When she first met with the doctors, Payne was asked to draw the pattern of the black spot she had been seeing in the days following the eclipse. Later, the adaptive optics scans revealed the burn on her retina was similar in shape and “really aligned with what she drew,” as Deobhakta remarked. The crescent sun had literally burned an image of itself on the woman’s retina, AO imaging revealed.

Detailed mage of the retinal burn caused in a woman's eye by August's solar eclipse.
This detailed image shows the crescent-shaped retinal burn caused by August's solar eclipse. Featured image credit: Chris Y. Wu et al.JAMA Ophthalmology

This type of retinal burn is irreversible and is not necessarily produced only by sun rays. Laser pointers, so popular among children and pet owners, can also cause similar retinal damage, mentions the Washington Post.

“It’s embarrassing. People will assume I was just one of those people who stared blankly at the sun or didn’t check the person with the glasses,” Payne told the CNN.

“It’s something I have to live with for the rest of my life,” she added.

Only a few medical facilities have access to AO imaging, which Deobhakta believes can offer a deeper insight into solar retinopathy by revealing the full extent of the retinal damage this rare condition can cause.

Deobhakta hopes this technology, which provides “high-resolution images of the damaged photoreceptors” in the eye, will bring doctors one step closer to finding a treatment for solar retinopathy.

“Young adults may be especially vulnerable [to solar retinopathy] and need to be better informed of the risks of viewing the sun with inadequate protective eyewear,” the authors conclude in their paper.