5 health conditions eye exams can uncover
If your vision is as sharp as ever — or if you’re doing just fine with your current glasses — you may think that skipping your annual eye exam isn’t a big deal. But this yearly checkup is an important part of staying on top of your overall well-being.
Your eyes are one of the only places in your body that can be examined without an invasive procedure. By looking at the blood vessels, tissues, and nerves of the eyes, optometrists can not only detect vision problems and eye diseases, but they can also spot early signs of serious health conditions.
Protecting your sight and your body? That’s one powerful checkup. Here are five of the most common health issues an eye exam can reveal. While optometrists can’t diagnose these conditions, what they uncover can help you get ahead of potential problems.
1. Discovering high blood pressure from eye exams
High blood pressure (hypertension) is often referred to as the “silent killer,” according to the American Heart Association. Many people don’t realize they have a problem because there are no outward symptoms.
During a routine eye checkup, however, an eye doctor has a crystal-clear view of the health of your blood vessels. In fact, the tiny blood vessels of the retina, which is in the back of your eye, are among the first to be affected by high blood pressure.
The eye doctor may see leakage and rupturing that sets off alarm bells. They may also notice twists and kinks in the blood vessels — another warning sign of high blood pressure.
2. Discovering diabetes from eye exams
Diabetes is another chronic condition that often goes unnoticed in its early stages. High blood sugar levels that aren’t lowered or well controlled can damage eye tissue, including the retina and the blood vessels that feed into it.
If the problem goes undetected (or untreated) long enough, it can lead to several vision problems, some of which cause vision loss. These include:
- Blurred vision
- Cataracts (a cloudy spot in your field of vision)
- Diabetic macular edema (when fluid collects in the macula, which is the central part of the retina)
- Diabetic retinopathy (when blood vessels leak into the retina)
- Glaucoma (when the optic nerve is damaged)
An optometrist can pick up on the early signs of diabetes and recommend that you see your primary health care provider for testing and treatment.
If you already know you have diabetes, you should still go for an eye exam each year. Your optometrist will check for signs of diabetic retinopathy and assess its progression.
3. Discovering autoimmune diseases from eye exams
Inflammation spotted in the eyes or around the eyes can signal the presence of autoimmune diseases such as thyroid disease, lupus, and multiple sclerosis.
Even without the use of equipment, your eye doctor may notice subtle clues that point to an autoimmune condition. Weak, droopy eyelids, for example, could be an early sign of lupus. Enlarged or bulging eyes are a common sign of an overactive thyroid.
4. Uncovering cancer from eye exams
Sores and disfigurations on the eyelid or near the lash line could be a type of skin cancer known as basal cell carcinoma. A change in the color of your eye, dark spots in the back of the eye, or other tiny changes on your iris can sometimes indicate a different type of cancer known as ocular melanoma.
5. Uncovering strokes from eye exams
The eyes are part of the brain, so they can also serve as an early warning system for a stroke. A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is cut off or when a blood vessel bursts.
Sometimes, blood flow to the retina is clogged (or a vessel bursts). This is called an eye stroke. The most common symptom is sudden, painless vision loss in one eye.
If your optometrist detects signs of an eye stroke, you’ll need immediate testing at a stroke center or with a neurologist. That’s because the risk of stroke is highest in the first few days after an eye stroke.
Bottom line: Keep up with your eye exams
These health problems sound scary, but the important thing to know is that good treatments are available — and early detection is key.
If you’re behind on your eye exams (or can’t remember the last time you were asked to read an eye chart), your next step is simple: Make an appointment. Eye exams are painless, and you’ll walk away with the peace of mind of knowing that you’ve taken a simple step to protect your health for the long term.
Health problems an eye exam can catch: American Academy of Ophthalmology
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