If you believe going to get your eyes checked is simply about vision, glasses or contacts -- think again. Optometrists have looked beyond our eyes to find other problems for many years.
Digital technology is opening that door even wider. Traditionally, the eyes are said to be the window to the soul, somehow revealing our innermost secrets and the nature of our personalities.
Whatever the case, the eyes do serve as our window to the world. For most people, the eyes need a little help from our friends in those regular optometrist visits.
Yet as important as eyewear is for daily living, other aspects can be more important for life and health. Those aspects can be explored using the eye as a window -- to the body.
"It's the only place in the body where we can actually see living tissue without having to dissect the tissue away to see how the blood flows in the blood vessels," Dr. Kenneth Lebow, an optometrist, explained.
Lebow says obtain an excellent view of the posterior pole of the eye, the retina, is critical.
Lebow gets that view from Optomap, a new technology that captures detailed images of the back of the eye. Many patients are choosing the scan to go beyond routine exams.
Optomap and similar technologies help medical detectives find clues about damage to the body ranging from diabetes to glaucoma to high blood pressure. They can even spy out some brain tumors as well as and cancers right in the retina.
Eye physicians can spot the tiny black mass that is a malignant melanoma. Plus he can use different views, such as the "red-free" laser option, to assess and highlight this major problem.
The key part of the retina is the macula. That's a tiny spot where most of our detailed color vision occurs.
Diabetes can make the macula especially vulnerable. With the Optomap image, eye doctors can see white swollen spots indicating diabetic retinopathy, retinal damage from diabetes. The effects of those spots, if allowed to continue unchecked, do degrade vision.
From the same scan showing those white spots in a diabetic, physicians can discern additional concerns. For instance, Lebow can distinguish certain red spots.
"These are hemorrhages in the eye as a result of uncontrolled diabetes," he pointed out.
That damage from internal eye bleeding can potentially turn a person's vision from a normal clarity to one of blurriness and gaps.
Retinal images also help evaluate another common problem called macular degeneration. This condition increases as we age and eventually causes patients to lose the very center of eyesight.
High blood pressure, or hypertension, can be a silent killer that threatens the eyes and even life itself. Lebow tells the story of one young lady with hemorrhages from hypertension,
"When we looked in and saw the image and showed it to her, we immediately referred her to her primary care physician," he explained. "She had a blood pressure of 250 over a 140. She was just about ready to stroke out."
Weak vessels in the retina often indicate the vessels feeding the heart are also in bad shape. That could mean heading right from the eye doctor to the cardiologist.
As diagnosis improves, eye doctors are starting to recommend lifestyle changes. Those changes for the good can be monitored in retinal scans. Thus the outcome of those eye pictures can show improvement -- an advantage in people of any age.
For instance, just a daily dose of a couple vitamin C tablets plus some vitamin E can combine to help blood flow better in the retina. That also can keep the tiny vessels, arteries and veins, from breaking.
Zinc supplements are especially important as we age. They also support circulation for both better eye and brain function.
Lebow says getting that first eye scan is useful for now and for comparison in the future "because in health care it's the changes from the baseline that we really get concerned with."
A scan now and a scan later can easily demonstrate those telling alterations.
With better and better images of the back of the eye, eye care professionals can help guide the public not only into better vision, but improved overall health.
First aired on March 18, 2009.