A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Eye exams, not just for the eyes

Phoropter illustration: Can eye exams detect other diseases?

If you’ve ever questioned the need for regular eye exams, read on.

A comprehensive eye exam can detect serious health problems that are already present or could happen, including diabetes, high blood pressure, high levels of cholesterol, multiple sclerosis, stroke and even brain tumors.

“The No. 1 disease we see is diabetes, which has become a big health issue,” said Dr. Jill Dillon, a Marshfield Clinic optometrist. “Some people come to us not knowing they already have diabetes but we can see it through changes in the retina.” These patients are then referred to a primary care physician for follow-up care.

Skyrocketing blood pressure

High blood pressure is indicated by changes in blood vessels in the retina, the back portion of the eye. There have been times when an optometrist will find a blood pressure reading so high the patient is referred to a hospital emergency department.

“Blood pressure can be skyrocketing, putting patients at serious risk for heart problems. Their vessels will be narrowed and instead of being straight will form squiggly lines,” Dillon said.

Traveling plaque

High cholesterol levels will show up in an eye exam because of plaque forming in the retina. Plaque could break off in the vessel, and if it comes from the carotid artery in the neck, it can cause a stroke.

“People don’t realize all blood vessels are connected, so plaque deposits can travel anywhere,” she said. “The eye is the only place in the body where we can noninvasively look at the vessels. What’s going on in vessels in the rest of the body also affects the eye.”

Multiple sclerosis is a bit different since it shows up as inflammation of the optic nerve. This is rare enough that Dillon has seen it only twice in 18 years of practice in Wisconsin Rapids. Other optometrists have reported detecting a brain tumor, but this is even rarer.

Eye exams are important

“I want to reinforce to people the importance of regular eye exams,” she said. “That’s especially true for people who come back to us because they need new glasses, but they haven’t seen a primary care doctor for many years.”

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