Dr. Annette Giangiacomo
Associate Professor, Ophthalmology, Eye Institute – Froedtert and The Medical College of Wisconsin Health Network and Volunteer Faculty for Orbis International
Just as yearly physicals can help detect something like high cholesterol before it leads to a heart attack, regular eye exams can ensure we preserve our sight. Many blinding eye conditions can be reversed or slowed, but only if they’re caught early.
As a doctor who treats glaucoma, the number-one cause of irreversible blindness, I’ve seen firsthand what putting off an eye exam can do. Some patients, thinking they were at low risk of developing glaucoma or of their glaucoma progressing, delayed coming in. All the while, the disease was silently worsening. Unfortunately, with the way glaucoma works, the damage can’t be undone. That has been a real challenge.
Glaucoma is caused by damage to the optic nerve, which is like a cable connecting the eye to the brain. As it becomes damaged, it doesn’t send as strong a signal for sight. Because this damage often happens slowly, affecting peripheral vision first, patients don’t notice the vision loss immediately. By the time the damage affects the main field of vision and becomes noticeable, it’s often too late.
That’s why getting a vision exam is so critical. Only a doctor can detect the early signs of the disease and start a course of action to slow its progression. Routine exams are even more critical for anyone who is at higher risk of glaucoma, including people who are over the age of 50, have a family history of the disease, or are African American or Hispanic.
Patients are understandably nervous about making a trip to the doctor for something other than an emergency while the pandemic is ongoing. But hopefully people will be motivated enough to preserve their site to overcome those fears in some part. At my office, and in those of my colleagues across the country, we’ve introduced extensive safety measures, including questionnaires to identify anyone with potential symptoms or recent exposure, temperature checks, increased sanitization, and allowing fewer patients into a facility at one time to maximize social distancing. Doctor’s offices really are one of the safest places you can visit. For now, I’m holding onto hope and continuing to remind my patients to get their 2021 eye exam on the books, even during a pandemic.