Seeing the Eye Doctor


by By Lisa Weiner /

Posted on March 20, 2009 at 10:01 AM

Updated Thursday, Nov 12 at 1:52 PM

About the Author

Portland-based freelance writer Lisa Weiner is a nurse practitioner and proud mother of a two-year-old boy. She has a passion for demystifying the world of health for her patients and readers. Her work has appeared in Clinician Reviews, The Jewish Review, Northwest Palate and the Oregonian.

Regular eye screening often gets, well, overlooked in our busy lives. But neglecting our eye health can result in impaired vision, which in turn can have devastating social and emotional consequences, such as not being able to drive, read or watch television. If you can't remember the last time you had your eyes examined, it's probably time to look up your eye doctor's phone number and schedule an appointment. Let's focus in on the basics of eye screening.

Who should you see, an ophthalmologist or an optometrist? An optometrist is a Doctor of Optometry (D.O.). Optometrists complete four years of professional training after graduating from college. Services provided by optometrists include comprehensive eye health and vision examinations; diagnosis and treatment of eye diseases and vision disorders; detection of general health problems; and prescriptions for glasses, contact lenses, low vision rehabilitation, and medications. They also perform certain surgical procedures.

An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor (M.D.) who specializes in the comprehensive care of the eyes and visual system. After college, ophthalmologists complete four years of medical school, one year of internship, and three or more years of specialized medical and surgical training. The ophthalmologist is trained to diagnose, treat and manage all eye and visual-system problems and perform all kinds of eye surgeries.

For uncomplicated problems and all screening exams, either an optometrist or an ophthalmologist will be able to serve your needs. If more complex problems arise, or if you have a disease or family history that increases your risk for eye disorders, you should see an ophthalmologist.

When and why should eye exams be scheduled? A full eye exam (which includes dilation of the pupils) can detect serious eye problems such as age-related macular degeneration, cataracts and glaucoma at their earliest, most treatable stages. For Caucasians, exams should be scheduled every 3-5 years at ages 20-29, every 2-4 years at ages 30-64 and every 1-2 years at age 65 and older. For African Americans, full eye exams should take place every 2-4 years at ages 20-64 and every 1-2 years at age 65 and older. People with diabetes, a history of eye surgery or eye trauma, or a family history of glaucoma should have more frequent exams. If you fall into one or more of the latter categories, check with your eye doctor to find out how often you need to be seen.

What should you expect at an eye exam? After taking a medical history, the doctor will examine all the external structures of your eyes, using a lighted instrument. Then you will go through several tests to evaluate various aspects of your vision. These may include the standard "eye chart" test, as well as testing a series of lenses to see which helps you to see more clearly. Toward the end of the appointment the doctor will put eye drops into your eyes--this may sting briefly--and will then evaluate the internal eye structures.

Finally, as a screening test for glaucoma, the doctor will test the pressure in your eye, using either a tool that touches your eye briefly or one that emits a puff of air onto your eye. The puff of air won't hurt, exactly, but it may give you some insight into why your dog hates it when you blow into its face. The dilation of your pupils caused by the eye drops may last a few hours, and you may need to wear dark sunglasses until your pupils return to normal. Driving can be tricky with dilated pupils, especially if it's sunny out, so you may want to take public transportation to your eye exam, or have someone drop you off and pick you up.

The small amount of time spent getting regular eye exams can significantly improve the quality of your life during your senior years. So, make sure you see your way clear to making an appointment today.