Your Eyes Say a Lot about Heart Health, Here's Why You Should Listen Up

Posted By Key-Whitman Eye Center || 29-Feb-2016

As another February comes to a close, so does another Heart Month. What you may not know is the important roles vision problems and eye doctors play in identifying heart health issues. Taking vision problems seriously and having regular eye exams can make the difference between a healthy heart and a life threatening health condition.

Key-Whitman patient avoids a stroke by taking visual symptoms seriously

A few months back, a patient in their mid-60s visited Key-Whitman Eye Center in Dallas following a transient ischemic attack (TIA). TIAs don’t cause permanent brain damage, but they are a key indicator of heightened stroke risk. The patient had experienced dizziness and vision problems with one eye during the TIA. By the time they came in to Key-Whitman, they felt great, but that wasn’t the end of the story.

“We did a visual field test to check for vision loss, and there wasn’t an issue. However, when we performed the dilated eye exam, we could actually see a shiny piece of plaque that had broken off from one of the blood vessels. By sheer luck, the blood flow was getting through, but when we combined the plaque finding with the dizziness symptoms, our alarm bells went off,” says Key-Whitman President and Chief Surgeon Jeffrey Whitman, M.D.

After a visit to the patient’s internist, tests revealed a significant stenosis and occlusion of the carotid arteries and the patient had surgery the next week.

As Dr. Whitman elaborates, “So here was somebody who assuredly would have had a stroke had they disregarded their temporary vision loss. That’s why I tell patients, ‘Don’t sleep on it! Feel free to be a worrywart, and don’t fear crying wolf.’ If you ignore the symptoms you DO have (or have had), and a week, a month, three months or a year go by, that’s when something bad usually happens.”

Visual symptoms can point to hypertension and increased stroke risk

As Dr. Whitman explains, “When most people suffer from vision problems, the first doctor they typically call is their eye doctor. What may surprise those patients is certain vision symptoms actually indicate that hypertension and an increased risk for stroke is likely.”

According to Dr. Whitman, the most common visual symptoms tied to an unhealthy heart include:

No. 1: Vision loss. When a patient complains of vision loss, any number of culprits could be to blame. “What makes an eye doctor suspect vascular disease is when reduced vision affects only one eye. Seldom is vision reduced in both eyes when a patient has vascular disease,” Dr. Whitman says.

No. 2: Subconjunctival hemorrhage. Have you ever had a very subtle cough and ended up with a red blood spot on the white part of your eye? According to Dr. Whitman, “That’s what we call a subconjunctival hemorrhage, and those blood spots pop up more frequently in people with uncontrolled blood pressure.”

No. 3: Headaches and double vision. “While rare, when a patient says they have a headache in conjunction with double vision, that usually indicates the situation is critical and the patient is at a heightened risk for a stroke,” Dr. Whitman says.

Unfortunately, many patients with heart disease have NO symptoms

That’s where an experienced eye care professional could save the day. As Dr. Whitman explains, “It’s interesting, because we frequently find vascular issues when people have no complaints. So you could have hypertension with no visual finding and not be feeling anything strange. This actually happens more frequently than having visual symptoms.”

While we’re not suggesting you skip regular physicals with your family practitioner or internist, a trip to the eye doctor can reveal health issues you had no idea existed.

Heart disease is but one of many health issues eye doctors find during eye exams

Dr. Whitman encourages patients to be diligent about getting annual eye exams for this very reason. As he explains, “During an eye exam, your eye doctor has the ability to pick up more than problems with hypertension, stroke and cardiovascular disease. We also regularly find diabetes that is out of control, glaucoma, cataracts and other health and eye conditions.”

Many diseases – like heart disease – can linger for years absent of any symptoms. “Without regular visits to your regular doctor and eye doctor, they are powerless to pick up on and help prevent serious health issues. If we can identify health problems early, we can help most patients avoid bad health outcomes and permanent vision loss,” says Dr. Whitman.

New technology aids diagnosis of vascular disease with less hassle

One of the standard procedures eye doctors perform during an annual eye exam is to dilate the eye. This allows the doctor to take a close look at the optic nerve and blood vessels in the back of the eye.

Many people dread the irritating drops used to dilate the eyes. Fortunately, new technology, specifically the Optos Imaging system, doesn’t require drops.

As Dr. Whitman explains, “The Optos system allows us to take a non-dilated digital image of the back of the eye, without the discomfort of dilating drops. With the Optos technology, we can also perform a fluorescence test to check for leaky blood vessels, a test that required a dye injection in the past.”

So what warning signs do eye docs see during an eye exam?

Eye doctors look for a number of abnormalities during an annual eye exam. “In particular, we look for blockage or deposits of calcium within the blood vessels. Those don’t originate from the eye, but usually come from the carotid arteries. Much of the time, the patient hasn’t lost all vision, but part of the visual field,” says Dr. Whitman.

Vision loss may even come and go. When vision doesn’t come back, that patient may suffer permanent vision loss. But it’s not only the patient’s vision that is at risk.

According to Dr. Whitman, “When we identify calcium or plaque in the blood vessels of the eyes, we know the situation is serious and the patient is at high risk for a stroke. That’s when a neurologist or internist needs to enter the picture and perform intensive vascular tests to look for stenosis or occlusions in the carotid arteries.

This is a critical time, because the coronary arteries, which supply blood to the brain, have likely narrowed. If they occlude or throw a big clot, they can clog up a major blood vessel and that can lead to a stroke.”

Schedule your annual eye exam now!

If you want to protect your heart, vision and overall health, it’s vital to stay on top of routine physicals and eye health exams. So don’t delay! You can schedule an eye exam appointment at Key-Whitman Eye Center by calling (855) 410-8106or fill out our handy online appointment form.

Photo Source: Dollar Photo Club

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