The Importance of Eye Exams

May 26, 2010 | By Jennifer Byrne

Photo Credit business man with eye test chart image by Jorge Casais from
Eye exams evaluate much more than your ability to distinguish a fuzzy letter 'O' from a fuzzy letter 'Q'; in many cases, they are crucial in detecting serious diseases. According to the American Optometric Association, a healthy adult should have a comprehensive vision exam every two years between the ages of 18 and 61, and once a year thereafter. Patients with risk factors for eye disease should check in for exams more frequently, as recommended by their doctor.

There are several tests that fall under the umbrella category of a comprehensive eye exam. In addition to a visual acuity screening and refraction exam, the doctor tests your ocular muscle strength, peripheral vision and color vision. The ophthalmologist or optometrist may also screen you for glaucoma using tonometry and pachymetry, which measure your corneal thickness and eye pressure. If you consent to a dilated exam, the doctor also examines your retina.

For those with common visual problems like nearsightedness, farsightedness and astigmatism, the most immediate benefit of an eye exam is clearer vision. Many contact lens and glasses wearers need periodic updates to their prescriptions, and patients over the age of 40 may need correction for presbyopia, an age-related deterioration in near and intermediate vision. According to the Mayo Clinic, almost everyone eventually develops presbyopia, and your doctor can correct it easily with bifocal glasses or contact lenses.

The retinal, corneal and visual field aspects of an eye exam also provide valuable benefits in terms of detecting diseases such as glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration (AMD), cataracts and diabetic retinopathy. Because these are progressive diseases that can lead to loss of vision, it is especially crucial to catch them as early as possible. An ophthalmologist or optometrist may even detect serious anomalies like eye or brain tumors, which may cause an unusual swelling in the optic nerve head.

Eye exams also aid in diagnosing and treating ocular allergies, infections, contact lens complications and dry eye syndrome. These conditions, which can cause great discomfort and impaired vision, are sometimes difficult to identify or distinguish from one another. Depending on the diagnosis, the doctor may prescribe drops, antibiotics, punctal plugs to enhance tear production or a change in contact lens regimen. In some cases, you may need to temporarily discontinue contact lens wear until the infection is resolved.

Retinal exams generally involve the dilation of the pupil using drops, so that the doctor can get a more complete view of the back of the eye. When going for a dilated eye exam, arrange to have transportation home, since dilation temporarily blurs vision. Because you'll also be sensitive to light, bring sunglasses with you to a dilated eye exam. While dilated exams are optional, doctors generally recommend them as part of a comprehensive eye exam.

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