People say that the eyes are the windows to the soul yet they are actually a window to your health. Many people are unaware how many health issues can be detected or diagnosed in an eye exam.
The eye has two unique properties. The first is that the tissue on the back of the eye, the retina, is the only place in the body where blood vessels can be seen without any obstruction of other tissue. By examining the appearance of these blood vessels, your optometrist can see damage from systemic disease happening to the eye and if it is happening to the eye then it is also happening to the blood vessels throughout the body.
Diabetes can be detected in this manner. Diabetic retinopathy presents in the eyes initially with small round hemorrhages. This stage of diabetic retinopathy is called background retinopathy and is an early sign that the person needs tighter control over their diabetes. Later stages of diabetic retinal changes show greater hemorrhages along with new blood vessel growth and deposits within the retina. This level of retinopathy requires treatment to stop the blood vessel growth, and patients with this level of change need extremely close monitoring on their condition. In neither of these levels will the patient normally be aware of any symptoms or issues. It does need to be stressed that these changes happen after years of having diabetes and that people can have diabetes before showing these changes. The retinal exam by your optometrist does not rule out the need for routine blood tests testing for diabetes during yearly physicals.
High blood pressure is another condition that can be detected in an eye exam. When blood pressure is out of control, the retina will present with small flame shaped hemorrhages, a reduction in the size of the arteries seen within the eyes and compression of the vessels as they cross over each other within the retina. Again, all of these signs of high blood pressure can be present without the patient knowing they have a problem.
Pending heart attacks and stokes can also be picked up in an eye exam. Strokes happen when plaques (embedded cholesterol bodies) break free from an artery and get swept downstream throughout our blood system until they block off a smaller artery causing either a heart attack or stroke. These plaques that are being released from the walls of our arteries vary in size and should a small one be released and become lodged into an artery in the retina, it can be visibly seen. Once this is seen, the patient needs an immediate vascular work up because left untreated there is a 50% mortality rate within 5 years. Cholesterol build up within the body can also be detected if patients under 40 have a slight ring of haze at the edge of their corneas. When this is seen, it is a warning sign that the patient is dealing with high cholesterol issues but is also more susceptible to damage from these increased levels.
Metastasized breast cancer can also be seen in the eye due to the vascular make up of the chest and the close proximity of the eyes.
The second unique property of the eye is that up to 30% of all of our nerve cells in the human nervous system are related to vision. Conditions such as MS, brain tumors, increased pressure within the spinal chord and pituitary tumors all create peripheral vision changes that are normally only found with the testing equipment used during an eye exam. Patients can lose over 50% of their peripheral vision before they notice any impact to their day-to-day life. Routine peripheral vision screening is a standard part of a yearly eye examination.
So the next time you are making that phone call to see your optometrist for your yearly exam, know that not only will your sight be thoroughly checked but you will also be checked for diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, MS, pituitary tumors, brain tumors, cancer metastasis, increased spinal pressure, etc. The eyes are indeed the windows to the soul…and to your health!