Your eyes may be the windows to your soul but it turns out that they are also pretty accurate portals to our overall state of health. A surprising amount of ailments, from vitamin A deficiency to more serious mental health issues, diabetes and heart conditions, can be detected by a trained optometrist.
An odd twitch in the eye? Could be low blood sugar. Blurred vision and eye pain? You may be at risk of an aneurysm. Which makes a yearly appointment with your optometrist something of a priority (along with a GP check-up of course).
They will look at the your eye movement patterns, the veins in the back of the eye, dark spots, the state of the optic nerve, and more. Not only will this check-up ensure you look after your eyes’ health in the best way possible, but could show up any other aspects of your health that need attention or further tests.
To find out more, we spoke to Dr Colette Hynds , who has had her own optometrist practice and lectures in ophthalmology at a Johannesburg university. She advises mentioning any changes you’ve seen in your eyes with your optometrist. This information, coupled with what they see, can help to make a more accurate diagnosis or lead to further tests.
Ten health conditions an optometrist can detect from an eye exam
- Diabetes. More than 3.2 million people in the UK now have diabetes, according to 2014 figures. An eye test can tell whether you are at risk of diabetes based on the retinal vascular changes and blood vessel patterns in your eyes. If your optometrist sees evidence of this, they will advise you to go for a test.
- High blood pressure. Hypertension is an indicator of other conditions, such as heart disease. An optometrist will pick up on whether you need to have your blood pressure checked by looking at the veins and arteries located in the back of your eye.
- Skin cancer. Not many people know that you can get skin cancer inside your eyes. A speck or new dark spot in your eye is what you should watch out for. An optometrist will be able to provide more information on whether a spot is cause for concern and needs to be investigated further.
- Brain pressure. Being overweight doesn’t just show up in your waistline: carrying an unhealthy weight is also noticeable by the curving of the optic nerve, buckling under pressure, as it were. If the optic nerve is buckling, the optometrist will recommend tests to see if you have increased pressure in your brain, or “idiopathic intracranial hypertension”.
- Aneurysm. Optometrists may be one of the few people who can tell if you are at risk of an aneurysm. If you tell your eye doctor that you are experiencing blurred vision, headaches or pain in your eye, this can alert them to the fact that something more serious might be present. They will be able to investigate whether you have a swollen optic nerve, pressure in your eye or bleeding in the eye.
- Hypoglycaemia. If you get a tic in your eye, it might mean more than just something irritating your eyeball. Having blood sugar levels that are considerably lower than they should be can cause a twitch in the eye – and tip your optometrist off to the fact that you could have hypoglycaemia (an abnormally low level of glucose in your blood, which means your body doesn’t have enough energy to function properly, and could indicate diabetes).
- Mental health. Unexpectedly, mental health problems can also be detected in a routine eye exam. In recent years, eye specialists have used the same technology used to diagnose glaucoma to help diagnose mental health concerns such as schizophrenia by mapping eye movement patterns.
- Not enough Vitamin A. People who eat balanced diets are at little risk of a vitamin A deficiency, but if you are not getting enough fruit and vegetables in your diet, or a sufficiently varied selection of them, you might be lower than you should be in your vitamin A stores. An optometrist will be able to tell if you are lacking by the condition of the surface of your eye.
- Cholesterol. Since heart disease affects both men and women but is known to be a silent killer, it is useful to know that an optometrist is able to detect cholesterol at its earlier stages. The giveaway is the fatty deposits that can be yellow in appearance and form on the eyelids. They don’t cause discomfort but they are a sign of things not being optimal in your heart’s health.
- Cancer. Metastatic cancers often present themselves in the eyes before any other symptoms show up. For women, breast cancer can be detected, and for men, lung cancer. Neither cancer impairs vision but the eyes can show a yellowish tinge, which alerts the optometrist to the possibility of cancer.