An eye exam can do much more than give you better, crisper vision – and a cool pair of new glasses. Here’s why.
I am sure that most of us have heard that when you have a persistent headache it can mean you need to get glasses. This is true. Headaches can be an indication of eyestrain caused by not seeing clearly. Usually, a pair of prescription glasses will relieve the headache like magic. However, sometimes things may not be so simple.
The eye is an extension of the brain. We see with our brain- the eyes are just the tools the brain uses. They are the lenses through which the brain collects visual data to process.
The visual pathway starts with our eyeballs and ends in the back of our head at the occipital lobe. In between is a complex network of blood vessels and nerves. Sometimes when there is disease in the body it can affect blood flow to the eye and cause vision loss. Thus getting an eye exam can sometimes reveal some serious systemic diseases.
How an Eye Exam Solved a Mystery
Recently I had a case that is a perfect example of this. An 82 yr. old male came in complaining of a headache on the right side of his head for the past two weeks. It was so painful that he couldn’t comb his hair in that area due to scalp tenderness. He also had some neck pain as well. He initially saw an ER doctor which concluded it was a muscle spasm. After a week or so without improvement, my patient decided to get an eye exam with me.
Surprisingly, his vision was good and had no defects. But his symptoms pointed to a severe condition called Giant Cell Arteritis. I studied this disease in school and remembered it clearly when he gave me his symptoms. It is an inflammatory disease that causes inflammation of the medium and large arteries in the brain. One of the arteries it can affect is the ophthalmic artery that supplies blood flow to the eye. If left untreated, giant cell arteritis can damage the optic nerves and lead to the blindness in both eyes.
Thankfully, my patient took my advice and sought the proper treatment for his condition. Today he is on a high dose of prednisone but is free of the headache. Best of all: his vision was unaffected.
Why an Eye Exam Should Be An Integral Part of Your Health Care
This story reminds me that we should check all boxes when suffering from lasting or recurring headaches and any other type of discomfort. Your primary doctor is a key resource, of course. And so is the annual vision check-up. Giant Cell Arteritis is just one of many health issues that can be caught early on during a regular eye exam. Among them:
- Diabetes— Diabetes affects the small capillaries in the retina of the eyes, causing a leak of blood or yellowish fluid. An eye exam can easily detect this condition.
- Hypertension— Bends, and tears in the eye’s blood vessels can indicate high blood pressure.
- Autoimmune disorders— Lupus and other autoimmune conditions can trigger constant inflammation in the eyes.
- High cholesterol— A yellowish color or a yellow ring around the cornea can be a sign of high cholesterol. Plaques in the blood vessels of the retina can also point towards elevated cholesterol.
- Cancer— Exposure to sunlight – and its UV radiation – can cause more than skin cancer: the eyes can also develop ocular melanoma -in the cells that make pigmentation in the eye- and basal cell carcinomas in the eyelid, which can spread to the brain through the ocular cavity. A simple eye exam can spot these conditions early on when they have the highest chances to the addressed.
These are just a few of the serious health issues that can be detected in an annual eye exam. Be your own advocate!
If something doesn’t seem right keep looking for an answer – and don’t skip your yearly vision checkup!