Why Should I Get My Eyes Checked If I See Well? [In a word: Glaucoma]

So you see well pretty much all day, right? That’s great! You don’t want to mess with glasses because your vision is just fine, right? No problem. So you don’t need to get your eyes checked until you have a problem with your vision right? Think again.

There is one recurrent question that comes up weekly if not every day in medical practices run by optometrists and ophthalmologists everywhere. Namely, people who have seen pretty well all of their life ask why they should return to the clinic for routine eye exam and get their eyes checked every year or two. When you consider that most people with this question don’t need glasses or contacts, I have to admit it is a good question. Others will balk at the doctor’s recommendation of routine annual exams if their current glasses still make them see well.

Let’s start this discussion by checking in with insurance companies. I’ll admit that this group of business is not the most highly revered type of business, but if you look at the ones that offer vision insurance, you will learn that they pay for a routine eye exam every year.

Let’s consider that for a moment. That is a ROUTINE eye exam every year for every patient. Not one only for people with an eye disease like glaucoma (more on that in a moment) or Age Related Macular Degeneration (commonly called AMD). We are talking about a routine exam for every subscriber, paid for by insurance companies every year. The insurance company that profits more when you spend less on healthcare wants you to get your eyes checked yearly.

We all know that insurance companies are motivated to keep costs low. They are in business to make money after all. One way they do that is by encouraging yearly exams for their subscribers, so that you do not end up suffering from irreversible vision impairment later on in life. It turns out patients who suffer from an eye disease for years before it is diagnosed and treated end up needing much more care, which costs insurance companies more money.

Plus the outcomes are not nearly as good, which means the people who have eye problems diagnosed years after they would have been detected in a routine exam end up seeing poorly. This in turn makes their life more limiting and frustrating. Some people end up with a serious disability that results in them not being able to work. Often times this could have been prevented if they had their eyes checked on a regular basis. That would be a big bummer if it happened to you.

What do you know about glaucoma? This eye disease is common, with more than 200,000 new cases in the US per year. Perhaps someone in your family has this eye disease. It can cause severe visual impairment and even blindness. The thing about glaucoma is that there are no symptoms until late in the disease. That means that nobody knows they have it early enough to prevent permanent vision loss from glaucoma unless they are getting routine eye exams.

Glaucoma is sometimes called the thief that blinds in the night. It does not blur your glasses, cause headaches, eye pain, or even the kind of mild eye irritation we all know can come from having an eyelash in the eye. In the vast majority of glaucoma cases, there are NO noticeable symptoms until late in the disease, when about HALF of the nerve cells in your optic nerves have already been killed off.

Quite often glaucoma is worse in one eye than the other. Since we all pretty much run around with both eyes open, this means that a lot of patients with glaucoma advanced enough to cause symptoms in one eye don’t even recognize that there is a problem, because their good eye is filling in the gaps for them.

When the risk factors for glaucoma turn up at a routine eye exam, your optometrist or ophthalmologist will talk with you about the findings. Perhaps your eye pressure is higher than normal, or your optic nerves look ‘suspicious for glaucoma’. They may even give you a diagnosis of ‘glaucoma suspect’ if you have enough risk factors to warrant being watched more closely than their normal patients.

If the disease is caught early, it is quite rare for patients with glaucoma to go blind. Eye doctors have excellent skills, tools, and medicines to prevent vision loss; that’s the good news. Most patients are on one eye drop per day to keep their eye pressure from going too high. They may also have to see their eye doctor for follow ups 2-6 times a year to make sure the current treatment is working.

Eye doctors are much better at helping patients keep the vision they have than at restoring vision that has been lost. If you value your sight and have not had an eye exam in the last 2-3 years, don’t you think it’s about time to have your eyes checked?

Sincerely, Dr. Mark Cannon, Optometrist at Cannon EyeCare