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How Your Eye Exam Can Reveal Other Diseases and Conditions

comprehensive eye exam imageOne of the things that fascinates Dr. Nannette Crowell, and other eye doctors like her, is how a simple eye exam can change someone’s life. Sometimes it’s from diagnosing cataracts — and scheduling the surgery that reverses a person’s blindness. And sometimes it’s when an eye exam can reveal unrelated diseases and conditions that hadn’t been caught before, potentially saving a patient’s life.

I want to talk about that second thing, because I also find it fascinating to learn — and a good reason to get regular exams!

Diabetes and Diabetic Retinopathy

One of the most common eye diseases detected through eye exams, diabetic retinopathy is most often diagnosed in patients who already know they have diabetes. (If diabetic retinopathy is not detected early on, it can lead to permanent blindness, which is why primary doctors really stress the importance of yearly eye exams to their diabetic patients.)

Occasionally the diagnosis works the other way. As we’ve written about elsewhere, diabetic retinopathy shows up as damage to the delicate blood vessels in the eye. They may be swollen or leak blood and other fluid. Occasionally an eye doctor will see these symptoms in a patient who has not yet been diagnosed with diabetes — and immediately recommend they get their blood sugars checked by their primary doctor. (As in this case, which indeed led to the discovery of uncontrolled diabetes; luckily, it was still in the early stages and there was no permanent damage!)

However, according to Dr. Crowell, the most common way she can help a patient discover they have diabetes is through fluctuating vision prescriptions. I’ve written a little about that, and other causes of vision fluctuation, here. Blood sugar spikes actually cause your vision to change, so when a doctor has a patient returning for a refraction do-over — only to discover a big difference from the measurements taken only a few weeks ago — the first thing they suggest is that the patient get their blood sugars checked.

Eye Tissue and Your Body

The tissues in your eye are the same as those found in your other major organs. Unlike your other organs, the eye tissues can be closely observed by an eye doctor, revealing the same conditions or diseases that might otherwise be found through invasive surgery. Often these problems don’t show any outward symptoms otherwise, and the earlier a condition or disease is detected, the greater chance of preventing permanent harm. Some of the diseases and conditions that can be discovered through observation of eye tissue are:

  • Some kinds of cancer
  • high blood pressure
  • possible strokes
  • STIs (sexually transmitted infections)
  • autoimmune diseases

Specific Symptoms Reveal Diseases

Sometimes observable physical problems in your eyes can point to other diseases or conditions. For example, bulging eyes are a strong indicator of Graves’ Disease, a common form of hyperthyroidism (think of the actor Marty Feldman).

Others include:

  • Double Vision — Myasthenia Gravis, an autoimmune disease

  • Inability to close one eye — Bell’s Palsy

  • Sudden Eyelid droop — Possible brain aneurysm

  • Yellow Eyes — Liver disease, gallstones, or pancreatic cancer

  • Abnormal blood vessels in the eyes — hardening of the arteries from high cholesterol or high blood pressure

  • Inflammation of either the front or back of the eye — autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis or Crohn’s Disease

Note that none of these symptoms guarantee that you have a certain disease or condition! An eye doctor, seeing any of these signs, will recommend further testing by a specialist or your primary care provider.

Finally, there may be advancements coming in the future. Although still in development, new testing technology may in the future help early detection of Alzheimer’s (once again, via those tissues that carry similarities to other major organs, including your brain). That technology isn’t available to eye doctors yet, so as of right now they can’t diagnose Alzheimer’s.

But as technology and techniques in medicine continues to evolve, the need for a regular eye exam remains strong. And knowing all that an eye exam is capable of, now and in the future, gives me a lot of excitement!

Contact Cascadia Eye

Alex BrandtIf you would like to learn more, or if you would like to schedule an appointment at Cascadia Eye, please contact us today. We are happy to answer any questions you might have!

In addition, join us on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ to ask your questions about eyes, exams, and our practice. We’d love to hear from you — and there might be a blog to address your questions in the future.

Alex Brandt is Cascadia Eye’s official blogger.

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