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Eye Exams: Your Windows to Wellness

Eye exams can reveal a lot about your health.

Sometimes a routine eye exam ends up being not so routine after all. Charles Brownlow, O.D., a practicing optometrist for 27 years and executive vice president of the Wisconsin Optometric Association, remembers one such exam a few years ago.

"I'd been seeing this particular patient -- let's call him 'Joe' -- for about 15 years," says Dr. Brownlow, "and one morning he came in for his regular eye exam.

"At first everything seemed strictly routine. Joe's vision hadn't changed in two years, and his eyes looked perfectly normal.

"But when I asked him some questions about his vision, he explained that one eye felt weaker than the other. He told me: 'Doc, things just don't look as bright or as sharp out of that eye!'

"After reviewing his chart and listening to his symptoms, I knew something was wrong and that we had to take action," recalls Dr. Brownlow. "Thankfully, my education and experience paid off that day. Countless other patients have also benefited over the years when visiting an optometrist because they believe they have a routine vision problem, but leave the office with a far different diagnosis."

Dr. Brownlow moved quickly. He referred his patient to a general physician, who sent him to a specialist. The diagnosis: carotid artery disease, in which fatty deposits build up on artery walls where they can trigger fatal blood clots.

"Joe had a major blockage in the carotid artery on one side of his neck," says Dr. Brownlow, and the blockage was cutting down on the blood supply to the brain and eye. "They hurried him into surgery, and he managed to avoid what could have been a life-threatening stroke."

Regular Eye Exams Are the Key

Most eye exams don't produce such dramatic consequences, but there's no doubt that getting your eyes checked every year or two is a key step in protecting the priceless asset that is your vision.

"Regular eye exams are extremely important, because they can uncover major health problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure," says Dr. Brownlow. "But a periodic eye exam is also necessary to assess the overall health of the eyes, to determine whether or not the patient needs vision correction with lenses or just to reassure you that all is fine."

According to Dr. Brownlow, the typical eye exam lasts about 30 minutes and begins with a case history, in which the doctor reviews the patient's medical background and asks about past vision problems.

After that, the doctor examines both the exterior and interior of the eye, looking for possible damage caused by disease, injury or aging. "With the help of modern instruments, we can look at the iris, then straight through the pupil all the way back to the retina."

Depth perception, peripheral vision, and the clarity and accuracy of vision at various distances also are tested. The doctor will prescribe corrective eyewear where appropriate.

Confidence in Your Eye care Doctor

How can patients be sure they are getting a high-quality eye exam? "I think the best way to judge that is to think about how you feel when it's over," says Dr. Brownlow. "Do you have a feeling of confidence in the doctor? Did he or she care enough to ask about your life and your health? Were tests performed skillfully and compassionately?

"You want to make sure that the doctor had a good, long look inside your eye. That process usually takes a couple of minutes -- and even though most of us don't like that bright light shining in our eyes, we should put up with it so that the doctor can do his or her job carefully and thoroughly.

"Sure, the technology continues to accelerate every year, and both optometrists and ophthalmologists are now equipped with more tools than ever before," says Dr. Brownlow. "But the foundation remains the caring human being behind the instrument, your doctor."