It is often said that the eyes are the windows to a person’s soul. Although observing the soul has been rather elusive in my clinical experience, the eyes are like windows in many respects. They are the windows we use to help us understand and process the world. As a practicing optometrist, the eyes also offer us a unique view into the overall health of the body. In fact, it is the optometrist who is often the first health professional to detect systemic disorders such as diabetes, high blood pressure and even multiple sclerosis.
The eyes are wonderfully complex and unique in many ways. One of the ways they are unique is that they are one of the only parts of body where it is possible to non-invasively view internal blood vessels in their natural state. Subtle changes in the blood vessels located in the retina; a very thin vital tissue covering the back inside surface of the eye could be warning signs for more global, systemic health concerns.
Take diabetes for example. Nearly 1 in 4 Canadians suffer from either diabetes or pre-diabetes. Uncontrolled diabetes can cause changes in the blood vessels throughout the body including the eyes—changes that can be detected even before an official diagnosis of diabetes has been made. Likewise, high blood pressure, which can also cause structural changes to blood vessels, can be detected during a regular eye exam.
In addition to allowing for insight into an individual’s cardiovascular health, the eyes also provide insight into the health of the brain and can even lead to the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. In up to 20% MS cases, the initial manifestation of the disease is inflammation of the optic nerve which can be detected during a routine eye exam. New research is also suggesting that an eye exam might someday help to detect certain types of dementia, specifically Alzheimer’s disease, long before the symptoms of confusion and memory loss happen. This would be a massive breakthrough in the medical profession especially because presently the official diagnosis of Alzheimer’s can only be made after post-mortem analysis.
Probably the most shocking example of ocular symptoms relating to overall health of the body is gout. Gout is a common type of inflammatory arthritis which primarily affects the big toe joint. Remarkably, gout is also linked to inflammation of the eye causing pain and redness to the ocular surface. In other words, a disease that primarily affects the big toe can also cause changes to the eyes, located on the exact opposite end of the body!
There is no other part of the body that offers such a unique and clear insight into the global health of the body than the eyes. This is why, in addition to getting your glasses prescription, a simple visit to your optometrist can play a crucial role in ensuring good ocular health as well as overall wellness.