There are a wide range of health conditions which can affect the eye or vision, some of which are treatable and preventable, and some of which are progressive and incurable. If you are concerned that you may be suffering from an ocular health issue, it is very important that you consult with a trained professional as soon as possible, because many of these conditions are easier to deal with if they are caught early.
Qualified optometrists should be able to detect many of these conditions during your routine eye tests, so it is important that you maintain the eye care schedule which has been suggested to you. For most people under the age of 40 with normal vision, the recommended schedule is once every two years. Older people and members of some “at risk” groups are recommended to have eye exams more regularly. Below is some information about some of the most common eye-related conditions in the United Kingdom.
Myopia (short-sightedness) and Hyperopia (long-sightedness)
Myopia is a condition which causes distant objects to look blurred, whereas the sufferer is able to see close objects much more clearly. Hyperopia allows people to see distant objects clearly, whilst they may struggle to see close objects (such as the book that they are reading) properly. Both of these conditions can range from so mild that the sufferer may not even notice an issue until they are diagnosed, to so severe that the sufferer may be registered as legally blind.
It is estimated that myopia affects up to 1 in 3 people in the United Kingdom, and that it is the most common eye disease in the world in adults. Most children are born with mild hyperopia because their eyes have not grown fully yet, but most people will grow out of this as the eye continues to develop. Conversely, many older children and teenagers are diagnosed with myopia which subsequently worsens as they age. It is believed that myopia is normally caused by environmental and genetic factors.
Both of these eye problems can be diagnosed at your routine eye exam by assessing your ability to read rows of letters which are decreasing in size. It is possible to treat most mild to moderate myopia and hyperopia with corrective lenses or laser eye surgery. Even if you already wear glasses, you should still continue to attend regular vision tests, so that you can monitor any changes in vision.
Cataracts are blurry or misty patches that are found in the lens of the eyes, which can affect the vision if they are allowed to develop. Whilst cataracts are most commonly found in adults and have developed as a result of the aging process, some babies are born with cataracts or develop them at an early age. Childhood cataracts are rare and may be difficult to spot. Signs that your child may be affected can include squinting, wobbling eyes and signs of poor vision.
As an adult, symptoms can include small patches of mistiness or blurring within your field of vision, difficulties seeing in very bright or dim light, halos around lights, and colours appearing to be less vivid. Cataracts should not be painful and you will not notice redness or irritation. Your optometrist should be able to identify adult cataracts easily by using a device which lights and magnifies the inside of the eye. Although some people find this test to be very uncomfortable, it is important that you allow your optometrist to carry it out.
It is estimated that around 2.5million adults in the UK suffer some form of visual impairment due to cataracts. A poor diet and excessive use of cigarettes and alcohol can increase the likelihood of developing cataracts, as can a family history of the problem. Whilst mild cataracts are often left untreated, more severe cataracts may be treated with surgery. During this procedure, the cloudy lens is removed and will be replaced with a clear, artificial lens.
Retinitis Pigmentosa is an umbrella term which covers a group of inherited eye disorders that affect the retina. These disorders permanently affect the vision, although the effects will vary from person to person, as will the speed of the degeneration.
The side and central vision are most likely to be affected by Retinitis Pigmentosa disorders. Problems with the side vision can affect the sufferer’s ability to see in dimly lit conditions, and problems with the central vision can cause difficulties with precise activities such as reading or watching moving pictures. Retinal pigmentosa is usually progressive, and sufferers may eventually lose their sight, however most people do keep some vision until old age.
With these eye disorders, retinal cells start to malfunction and begin to die out slowly, which cause a gradual worsening of the vision. The speed at which this happens will vary from person to person. Early symptoms include night blindness, or trouble with your peripheral vision. If you frequently bump into things which other people expect you to be able to see, then you should consult with your optometrist. These conditions are almost always inherited, and may be accompanied by other similar symptoms in other cell groups around the body. Although close family members may not have been affected by one of these disorders, they may have been carriers of the gene. If you are concerned about passing on one of these conditions to your children, then you may want to seek the advice of a genetic counsellor, and your GP or optometrist should be able make a referral for you.
There is currently no known treatment or cure for retinitis pigmentosa, although your doctor may be able to suggest options which slow the degeneration. Although these options work with some forms of retinitis pigmentosa, they do not always help.
Glaucoma is an eye disorder which can put the sight at risk. Sufferer’s normally experience a build up of pressure in the eye, because fluid is not able to drain away properly. This can cause damage to the nerve fibres which are located near the back of the eye, and to the optic nerve, which runs between the eye and the brain. Although it is possible to experience glaucoma in just one eye, most people who suffer from this condition are affected in both eyes. If both eyes are affected, the glaucoma may develop more quickly in one eye than in the other.
Glaucoma may develop as a result of trauma to the eye, as a secondary condition following an infection or it may be unrelated to other issues. In some cases, glaucoma can be treated with eye drops or laser surgery, although it is important that you begin treatment as soon as possible, because any damage which has already happened cannot be reversed. Untreated glaucoma can lead to visual impairment.
The best way to avoid serious side effects from glaucoma is to have regular eye tests, so that you can spot the problem before it is able to develop. People of black and Asian origin are more likely to develop certain types of glaucoma than those from other ethnic groups.
Diabetic Retinopathy is an ocular disorder which develops as a result of diabetes. High blood sugar levels, such as those which are associated with diabetes can cause damage to the cells in the retina. High blood sugar levels can result in the narrowing or bursting of the blood vessels at the back of eye. Changes to the blood supply to the retina can stop the retina from working properly. If the changes are caught early enough, the symptoms may be reversible, but if the condition is able to reach its later stages, then the damage may be permanent.
People who are known suffers of diabetes should have more frequent eye exams than non-sufferers (every 1 year, compared to every 2 years), so that this condition can be picked up as soon as possible. Known diabetes sufferers may be eligible for free or subsidised eye tests through the National Health Service, so you should consult with your GP or optometrist to see whether you would be eligible. If you have diabetes and you notice any changes to your vision, you should see an eye doctor as soon as possible, because severe diabetic retinopathy can cause blindness. Basic treatment plans normally involve trying to keep your blood sugar level under control, however more serious cases may be treated with surgery or injection therapy.
As a diabetic, it is important that you follow a carefully controlled diet to help to keep your symptoms under control. To reduce the risks of vision problems developing, you should try to include foods in your diet which contain Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Lutein and omega-3 fatty acids. Giving up smoking can also help to reduce the likelihood of developing this condition.
Age-related Macular Degeneration
The term Macular Degeneration is given to describe the condition where damage occurs to a part of the retina known as the macula. The macula is the area of the eye which focuses the incoming rays of light. A fully functional macula helps you to see things which are directly in front of you, as well as helping you to focus on detailed visual tasks like reading and writing.
In the majority of people, the macula will begin to degenerate as they age, due to a thickening of the tissue around the retina. This thickening can prevent vital nutrients from reaching some areas of the eye because the blood flow to the eye will be affected, and it will also inhibit the disposal of waste products from the eye. This can lead to build-ups of small deposits which damage the light cells in your eye. This is known as “dry” macular degeneration. Some people experience “wet” macular degeneration, where the body attempts to compensate for the thickening tissue by growing a series of thin blood vessels underneath the macula. Unfortunately these weak blood vessels often leak blood and fluid into the eye, and cause more harm than good to the macula.
Macula degeneration will lead to blurred vision. If you notice that you are having trouble focusing on books, that you are struggling to recognise familiar faces, or if you have noticed that colours have begun to seem less vibrant, then you may want to speak to your optometrist about this disorder.
Older people are more likely to develop macular degeneration than younger people are, and certain groups are more likely to be affected. Long-term smokers are more likely to develop the condition than non-smokers, and women are more at risk than men. A family history of macular degeneration can also increase your chances of suffering from this condition. Making certain lifestyle choices can reduce your risks; including reducing alcohol intake, protecting your eyes from overexposure to sunlight, and maintaining a healthy weight.
Neither of the forms of macular degeneration can be cured at this time, although the progression of dry degeneration can be slowed with dietary changes, and the progression of wet degeneration may be slowed with drugs that prevent the formation of new blood vessels.
Amblyopia (lazy eye)
Amblyopia is the loss of vision in one eye, based on the brain’s inability to tolerate double vision. Although the eye may be physically capable of seeing, the brain stops processing messages from the eye because the signals that it is receiving are not helpful. Amblyopia normally only develops in infants or young children. In most cases, vision can be regained by training both of the eyes to work together properly.
It is important to identify a lazy eye as soon as possible because the vision in this eye will not develop at the same rate as the vision in the dominant eye, so long as it is not used. The longer that the problem goes untreated for, the harder it is to correct.
Floaters are random deposits which collect in the vitreous humour (fluid) in the eye. Although humans are normally born with transparent vitreous humour, imperfections begin to develop in the fluid as we age, and these are known as “floaters”. These deposits can cast shadows on the retina if they get in the way of light rays which are entering the eye. Although they cannot be seen most of the time, they may be noticed when looking at blank or monochromatic spaces. Glimpses are normally fleeting and can be ignored quite easily, however people with severe floaters may find that sections of their vision are completely obscured at times.
Small floaters will often disappear on their own over time, however severe cases of floaters may need to be treated with surgery or laser treatments. The sudden appearance of lots of small floaters accompanied by the appearance of other flashing or dotting in front of the eye may be a sign of retinal detachment. This requires immediate medical attention, as it can cause blindness.
The eye cleans and protects itself by lubricating itself with fluids, such as that which is produced by the tear glands. If tear glands are blocked, if they do not produce enough fluid, or if the fluid which is produced is of poor quality, then the sufferer will start to experience dry eyes.
Dry eyes can cause discomfort, itching and burning, and the patient may find themselves blinking more often than normal. In some extreme cases, vision loss may occur. Mild cases of dry eyes can be solved by using eye drops or increasing the humidity level in the home, however more severe cases may require surgery on the tear ducts.
The conjunctiva is the thin membrane which covers the eyeball and part of the inner eyelid. This can become inflamed for a number of reasons, including general infections, irritants in the eyes, exposure to chemicals or because of allergies. People who suffer conjunctivitis may experience itchy eyes, burning sensations, excessive discharge or tears, redness, and the feeling that there is something trapped in the eye. In most people, the symptoms will only last for a few days and can sometimes be treated with over-the-counter medicines.
Conjunctivitis is the result of an infection that can be highly contagious, so those who have the condition should avoid touching their eyes whenever possible, because this can help to spread the infection. If you wear contact lenses, you should not wear them whilst you are suffering from conjunctivitis.
Strabismus is the term which is often used to describe “misaligned” eyes. Although some people are born with a squint, many people develop one over time. Causes of strabismus can include physical trauma to the head, brain cancers or strokes. In some cases, the squint simply occurs because of a weak muscle around the eye.
Each eye is normally controlled by 6 muscles, and if 1 muscle is not working like it should, that eye may develop a squint. The treatment for strabismus will depend on what the cause of the specific problem was. Treating the original problem will often solve the squint itself. Glasses may also help people who suffer from a squint.