Some health problems can be detected by visiting the eye doctor. There is more to an annual appointment with your ophthalmologist than simply checking the health of your eyes. A close inspection of the lens, retina and optic nerve can show a number of systemic disorders, sometimes before other symptoms become apparent.
AARP’s recent article entitled “7 Health Problems That Can Be Detected Through an Eye Exam” explains that an ophthalmologist can see blood vessels and nerve tissue that actually runs all the way to the brain. Let’s look at some health conditions doctors can discover:
- High blood pressure. Most bleeding in the eye is harmless. It’s sometimes caused by coughing or sneezing too hard. However, it can also be a sign of high blood pressure. This can present as a tiny blood vessel that breaks in the white of the eye and leaks blood (subconjunctival hemorrhage). Another sign of underlying hypertension is some swelling in the eye. When someone has high blood pressure over a long period of time, the arteries of the retina may stiffen and cause bulging in the eye when pressed against a blood vessel (arteriovenous nicking).
- Heart disease. An eye exam can detect a number of cardiovascular conditions, such as clogged arteries. In many cases, it’s before the patient even knows there’s a problem. Sometimes, an eye doctor can see little plaque deposits inside the eye that have broken away from buildup on the carotid artery, which supplies most of the blood supply to the brain. They can cause a stroke, if they reach the brain.
- Diabetes. Patients may not show symptoms and have perfect vision, but an eye doctor will find signs indicating underlying diabetes. There’s a belief that when diabetes begins to affect your eye, you’re going to go blind. However, if it’s caught in time, your vision may be saved. Another tell-tale sign of diabetes is the appearance of cotton wool spots, which appear as fluffy white patches on the retina. While they can go away without treatment, they can be an indication of the disease.
- Rheumatoid arthritis. This is a chronic inflammatory disease that impacts the joints and can also affect the eyes. Dry eye is the most common eye symptom of rheumatoid arthritis. Another way in which rheumatoid arthritis can impact the eye is through inflammation, particularly inflammation of the sclera (the thin white outer layer of the eye). That’s because inflammatory conditions affect collagen, the main component of connective tissue. The sclera is composed mostly of collagen.
- Thyroid disorder. Protruding eyeballs and retracting lids (that’s when the upper or lower eyelid margins are drawn back from the normal position) are indications of an overactive thyroid gland, or hyperthyroidism. It sometimes appears with dry eye because the lids can’t cover the surface of the eye as well. An eye doctor may use an exophthalmometer to measure how far the eyeball protrudes.
- Parkinson’s disease. Currently, there’s no conclusive test doctors can use to identify Parkinson’s disease. The diagnosis is based on symptoms and a neurological and physical exam. However, RightEye, which received FDA clearance in 2018, tracks eye movement measurements (as a patient stares at a screen and follows prompts) to help evaluate for Parkinson’s. Research has shown that people who suffer from Parkinson’s disease generally have ocular tremors, usually in the very early stages before other symptoms are noted. The eye-tracking technology that identifies ocular tremors can help to diagnose Parkinson’s much sooner.
- Cancer. The eyelid is one of the most common places to see skin cancer from sun exposure, and the lower lid is the most frequent location. However, more rarely, melanoma can be detected inside the eye—for example, near the iris or the muscle fibers that surround the lens—where it can be seen with a microscope.
Reference: AARP (April 8, 2021) “7 Health Problems That Can Be Detected Through an Eye Exam”