You’ve probably heard the old saying “The eyes are the windows to the soul.” To a trained eye doctor, the eyes are also windows to the rest of the body and its overall health.
There are many reasons it’s important to have routine eye exams. Some of them are obvious: Monitoring your eye health, protecting your vision, and detecting eye conditions at an early stage when they can be treated most effectively. But an eye exam can also reveal clues about health conditions that affect the rest of the human anatomy.
Dr. Kallie Harrier, an optometrist with Isthmus Eye Care in Madison with expertise in low vision, explains that a lot of problems centered in the eye don’t have any symptoms. One common example is glaucoma, often referred to as “the sneak thief of sight.” Many patients aren’t aware anything is wrong until they’ve already started to lose vision. Routine eye exams where pressure inside the eye is tested are the only way to detect glaucoma before it starts to cause irreversible damage.
“In glaucoma, early detection is key because it’s a disease that progresses slowly and we can do something about it,” Dr. Harrier says. “The sooner we can start you on your eye drops or other treatment the better, because that’s going to reduce the risk of future progression of the disease.”
Even with other eye diseases that are less treatable than glaucoma, such as retinitis pigmentosa or macular degeneration, early detection can lead to the best outcomes.
“There may not be a cure that we can offer, but knowing about the condition helps people prepare for what’s coming,” Dr. Harrier says. “The sooner we can acknowledge what’s happening with their vision, the better position they’ll be in to adjust to the changes.”
More surprising to many people is that the list of conditions an eye exam can uncover goes far beyond the eyes. High blood pressure and diabetes are two health problems that are often first identified by an optometrist or ophthalmologist.
“A lot of people, especially if they don’t have health insurance, skip their routine physical exams, but they’ll come to us because they can’t see well and they need new glasses,” Dr. Harrier says. “And then we find a systemic condition like diabetes or high blood pressure. There have been multiple times where I’m the first person to see diabetes in a patient, and then we can refer them to their primary care provider to get the treatment they need.”
How are eye doctors able to discover these conditions? It turns out that the eyes really are like windows in a sense. They provide a unique view of the body’s inner workings.
“The cool thing about the eye is that it’s the only place in the human body where we can see blood flowing through your veins without having to cut you open,” Dr. Harrier explains. “We can tell a lot about a person’s overall health just by looking at that vasculature. With high blood pressure, instead of nice smooth blood vessels, we often see them get kinked or start to change course because of that increased pressure over time.
“Sometimes we’ll see blood in the back of the eye that shouldn’t be there, and that can be an indication of diabetes,” Dr. Harrier added.
Abnormal blood flow isn’t the only type of warning sign a doctor can observe through the eyes.
“Just a couple weeks ago, I had a patient come in for a routine exam just to get some new contact lenses,” Dr. Harrier said. “I found swollen optic nerves, so I sent her to the emergency room, and she had emergency surgery that day to remove a brain tumor. So there are a lot of things we see in the eye that reflect what’s happening throughout the body.”
Dr. Harrier emphasizes that it’s important to continue getting routine eye exams even if you’ve already been diagnosed with and are being treated for a particular eye condition.
“I tell my patients ‘You can have as many diseases as it pleases,’” she says. “That means just because you have glaucoma doesn’t mean you can’t also get macular degeneration, or just because you have diabetic retinopathy doesn’t mean you can’t get glaucoma.”
For people with a new diagnosis of a condition that threatens their eyesight, Dr. Harrier says it’s beneficial to see an optometrist who specializes in low vision to make sure you get the best lens prescription possible.
“A lot of times, people are just resigned to not seeing well, but even a little bit of glasses prescription can make a big difference,” she says. “If you have access to a low vision optometrist, they can help you get the best vision possible and help you find the tools you need. And if there’s a tool we aren’t able to provide, we can refer to an organization like the Council that may be able to help.”
American Academy of Ophthalmology, “20 Surprising Health Problems an Eye Exam Can Catch”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Keep an Eye on Your Vision Health”