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Understanding Recurrent Painful Ophthalmoplegic Neuropathy (RPON) : Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

What is Recurrent Painful Ophthalmoplegic Neuropathy (RPON)?

Recurrent Painful Ophthalmoplegic Neuropathy (RPON) was previously categorized as a type of migraine, but contemporary understanding has now made doctors recognize it as a distinct condition.(1,2)

Migraine, a neurological disorder affecting the brain and nervous system, is frequently associated with intense and frequent headaches. Additional symptoms that many migraine sufferers often experience may also include nausea and heightened sensitivity to light, sound, and touch.

Neuropathy, in contrast, includes conditions linked to nerve damage or impaired nerve function. While related to neurological issues, neuropathies have their unique characteristics separate from neurological conditions.

Formerly identified as ophthalmoplegic migraine, it was only in 2013 that the International Headache Society reclassified this condition as Recurrent Painful Ophthalmoplegic Neuropathy (RPON).(3) This reclassification aimed to align RPON with other neuropathies, emphasizing its distinctive features and distinguishing it from migraine.

Delving deeper into RPON, let us look at the specifics of this condition in order to gain more insights into ophthalmoplegic migraine.

Symptoms of Recurrent Painful Ophthalmoplegic Neuropathy (RPON) Symptoms and their Impact

As mentioned above, RPON was previously known as ophthalmoplegic migraine. The condition can manifest in individuals of any age, although it predominantly affects children, especially those younger than ten years old.(4)

Typically, RPON begins with a headache located around or behind the eyes, persisting for several days to a week. Unlike migraines, these headaches typically do not tend to involve the auras that are more commonly associated with migraine episodes.

One of the hallmark symptoms of RPON, though, is ophthalmoplegia, which is characterized by a weakening or paralysis of the muscles responsible for eye and eyelid movements. This ocular muscle impairment might even coincide with the headache’s onset or, in some cases, emerge up to two weeks later, potentially lasting for a span of up to three months.(5)

These RPON episodes tend to recur, with intervals between them varying from as short as a week to as long as five or more years.

Additionally, the impact of RPON extends beyond its physical symptoms, often causing distress and disruption in the lives of those affected. The unpredictability of its recurrence, along with the prolonged duration of symptoms, can significantly impact daily activities, school attendance, and overall quality of life.

As RPON primarily affects children, its occurrence may raise concerns among parents and caregivers regarding the well-being and management of the condition. Understanding its distinctive symptoms and potential implications is crucial for timely diagnosis, effective management, and providing necessary support to individuals grappling with RPON.

Causes of Recurrent Painful Ophthalmoplegic Neuropathy (RPON)

There is no doubt that RPON is a relatively uncommon condition. This has presented a challenge in understanding its causes, which is further evident from its recent reclassification from a migraine subtype to a distinct neuropathic condition.

The precise causes of RPON still remain elusive, contributing to the complexity of actually understanding this condition. Although ongoing research aims to unravel its origins, experts have postulated several theories, each shedding light on potential contributing factors.

Some of these theories on RPON causes are as follows:

  1. Compression Theories: One perspective proposes that inflammation in the walls of cranial arteries could trigger RPON by exerting pressure on the adjacent nerves controlling eye movements. This compression might lead to the characteristic symptoms of ophthalmoplegia observed in RPON.(6)
  2. Ischemia: Ischemia, characterized by reduced blood flow to cranial nerves, is another speculated cause of RPON. Variations in blood circulation to these nerves due to various factors could potentially contribute to the onset of RPON episodes.(7)
  3. Demyelination: The protective covering around neurons, known as myelin, plays a vital role in nerve signaling. Damage or loss of this myelin – a condition known as demyelination – has been considered as a potential factor linked to RPON. Demyelination-related disruptions are also believed to lead to the manifestation of RPON symptoms.(8)

Understanding these potential mechanisms – compression, ischemia, and demyelination, or a combination of all three – provides some insight into the plausible pathways that might contribute to the development of RPON. However, the intricacies of how these factors interplay and initiate RPON episodes still remain subjects of ongoing research and investigation.

Given the complexity and variability of RPON causes, the process of diagnosis often relies on a comprehensive evaluation of symptoms, medical history, and specialized tests to rule out other conditions. Treatment approaches predominantly focus on symptom management.

Complications and Risk Factors of Recurrent Painful Ophthalmoplegic Neuropathy (RPON)

In the short term, RPON episodes characterized by severe headaches can significantly disrupt daily life, leading to missed school or work and hindering routine tasks. Furthermore, ophthalmoplegia, a distinctive symptom of RPON, may result in double vision, blurred vision, and episodes of dizziness, thus further impacting a child’s daily activities and quality of life during these episodes.

However, it is the long-term implications of RPON that are far more concerning. Following recurrent episodes of ophthalmoplegia, certain symptoms such as persistent drooping eyelids, dilated pupils, or misalignment of the eyes may become chronic, affecting vision and leading to prolonged discomfort or visual disturbances.

As mentioned above, the exact causes of RPON are still not known, and consequently, its definitive risk factors are not well-established. Nonetheless, certain associations have been observed, including:

  • Connection with Migraine: RPON appears to be more prevalent in people who have a history of migraines or those who have a family history of migraines. This suggests a potential link between these conditions, although the exact nature of their relationship remains uncertain.(9)
  • Predominance in Children: RPON is typically diagnosed in children, particularly those under the age of ten. However, it is essential to note that RPON can affect people of any age, though it is less commonly observed in adults.

While the precise factors contributing to the development of RPON remain under investigation, understanding these potential linkages can help in identifying at-risk populations.

Diagnosing Recurrent Painful Ophthalmoplegic Neuropathy (RPON)

Diagnosing RPON (Recurrent Painful Ophthalmoplegic Neuropathy) or ophthalmoplegic migraine primarily involves a comprehensive assessment conducted by a healthcare professional.

A doctor typically begins the diagnosis by conducting a detailed medical history review and a comprehensive physical examination. Discussions about the individual’s medical background, particularly any history of severe headaches, are crucial in establishing a potential link to RPON.

RPON often manifests in children and can affect various cranial nerves, each presenting with distinct symptoms. Notably, the oculomotor nerve is commonly involved, leading to specific symptoms such as pupil dilation, drooping eyelids (ptosis), and limitations in moving the eyes in different directions (upward, downward, or side to side).

Doctors also check for symptoms that indicate that the oculomotor nerve is affected. Some of the key signs that doctors look for include:

  • Pupil Dilation
  • Ptosis (Drooping Eyelids)
  • Restricted Eye Movements

These symptoms can manifest in either one eye or both eyes, depending on the extent of nerve involvement.

The correlation between the reported symptoms, the patient’s medical history, and the observed neurological manifestations helps in establishing a diagnosis of RPON.

Treating Recurrent Painful Ophthalmoplegic Neuropathy (RPON)

Treatment options for RPON (Recurrent Painful Ophthalmoplegic Neuropathy) or ophthalmoplegic migraine are not standardized due to the condition’s rarity.

Some of the commonly used treatment approaches include:

  • Corticosteroids
  • Intravenous Immunoglobulin (IVIG) Infusions
  • Indomethacin(10)
  • Pregabalin

Given the rarity and complexity of RPON, treatment decisions are usually made on a case-by-case basis, considering symptom severity, individual response to therapies, and potential risks associated with the chosen interventions.


Preventing or significantly reducing Recurrent Painful Ophthalmoplegic Neuropathy (RPON) or ophthalmoplegic migraine continues to remain a challenge due to the limited understanding of its precise causes and mechanisms.

Given the rarity of RPON and the lack of established preventive protocols, management of the condition primarily focuses on symptom alleviation and timely treatment during active episodes. Continued research efforts are essential to uncovering more targeted preventive strategies and advancing the understanding of RPON.


  1. Huang, C., Amasanti, M., Lovell, B. and Young, T., 2017. Recurrent painful ophthalmoplegic neuropathy. Practical Neurology, 17(4), pp.318-320.
  2. Liu, Y., Wang, M., Bian, X., Qiu, E., Han, X., Dong, Z. and Yu, S., 2020. Proposed modified diagnostic criteria for recurrent painful ophthalmoplegic neuropathy: five case reports and literature review. Cephalalgia, 40(14), pp.1657-1670.
  3. Yan, Y., Zhang, B., Lou, Z., Liu, K., Lou, M., Ding, M. and Xu, Y., 2020. A case of recurrent painful ophthalmoplegic neuropathy. Frontiers in Neurology, 11, p.440.
  4. Günay, Ç., Edem, P., Kurul, A.S.H., Yaşar, E. and Yiş, U., 2022. Recurrent painful ophthalmoplegic neuropathy: a report of two new pediatric cases. The Turkish Journal of Pediatrics, 64(3), pp.592-598.
  5. Virgo, J.D. and Plant, G.T., 2017. Internuclear ophthalmoplegia. Practical Neurology, 17(2), pp.149-153.
  6. Smith, S.V. and Schuster, N.M., 2018. Relapsing painful ophthalmoplegic neuropathy: no longer a “migraine,” but still a headache. Current Pain and Headache Reports, 22, pp.1-9.
  7. Alstadhaug, K.B., Bakkejord, G. and Bø, H.K., 2023. Could recurrent painful ophthalmoplegic neuropathy be caused by a neurovascular conflict?: A case report. Cephalalgia Reports, 6, p.25158163231157628.
  8. Aleksic, D.Z., Miletic Drakulic, S. and Ljubisavljevic, S., 2020. Recurrent Painful Ophthalmoplegic Neuropathy: Migraine, Neuralgia, or Something Else?. Journal of Oral & Facial Pain & Headache, 34(4).
  9. eyewiki.aao.org. (n.d.). Ophthalmoplegic Migraine/Recurrent Painful Ophthalmoplegic Neuropathy – EyeWiki. [online] Available at: https://eyewiki.aao.org/Ophthalmoplegic-Migraine/Recurrent-Painful-Ophthalmoplegic-Neuropathy [Accessed 9 Dec. 2023].
  10. Akhondian, J., Ashrafzadeh, F., Seilanian Toosi, F., Esmaeilzadeh, M., Beiraghi Toosi, M., Imannezhad, S., Saeedi Zand, N. and Hashemi, N., 2022. Recurrent painful ophthalmoplegic neuropathy with unilateral oculomotor and trochlear nerve palsy in an 8-year-old girl. Journal of Binocular Vision and Ocular Motility, 72(4), pp.199-204.
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:December 28, 2023

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