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Seeing eye to eye

May 03, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

Do you have trouble reading small print, sewing or doing crafts? Do you get headaches or have tired, burning eyes after reading or working on a computer? Do you experience difficulty seeing at night, or reading street signs while driving? Are your eyes irritated, dry or red? Do you see spots or flashes of light in your field of vision?

If you answered yes to more than one of those questions from the American Optometric Association's Great American Eye Test, at www.aoanet.org on the Web, it might be time to get your eyes checked.

Eye doctors perform tests that check for a wide range of optical conditions - including nearsightedness, farsightedness, astigmatism, color vision, optical muscle alignment, health of the retina and glaucoma, said optometrist Rose Navin Wood of Eyecare Professionals in Hagerstown.

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Routine eye exams can detect such serious vision problems as glaucoma and cataracts, and eye doctors can then begin treating the diseases before they do serious damage to vision

Yet many people fail to take preventative action.

"A lot of people think those problems are just for older people," Wood said. "They aren't."

Wood said she's seen first-time patients younger than 40 with vision-threatening conditions that a standard eye exam could have detected.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology has estimated that about 1 million people in America are at risk of losing their vision due to untreated glaucoma - the leading cause of preventable blindness in the United States. Glaucoma is an eye disease in which fluid pressure inside the eye builds up and damages the optic nerve, causing loss of peripheral vision and eventually blindness. The most common form of the disease, open-angle glaucoma, progresses slowly and without symptoms until its end stages, Wood said.

Those most at risk for developing the disease are individuals with a family history of glaucoma or diabetes, African-Americans, older people or those who have used steroid medications for long periods of time, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Individuals in high-risk groups should undergo comprehensive vision tests every two years, according to a glaucoma brochure from Wood's office.

There is no cure for glaucoma, but it can be controlled by treatments aimed at lowering the eye's fluid pressure. Early detection and treatment is crucial because vision loss caused by glaucoma cannot be restored, Wood said.

Cataracts affect about 1.5 million people in the United States each year, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. A cataract is a clouding of the normally clear lens of the eye, which scatters light and prevents some light from reaching the retina. Aging, heredity, diabetes, eye injuries, high salt intake, long-term unprotected exposure to sunlight and previous eye surgery are among the causes of cataracts. Surgery is highly successful at removing the cloudy lens and replacing it with an artificial lens, the American Academy of Ophthalmology states.

To keep eyes in optimal shape, individuals should begin getting routine eye exams as young children.

Vision problems affect one in 20 preschool-age children and one in four school-age children, according to information from the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Since untreated problems can worsen and lead to permanent vision loss and delayed development, young children should undergo vision testing for conditions including strabismus (crossed eyes), amblyopia (lazy eye), ptosis (drooping of the upper eyelid) and such refractive errors as nearsightedness, farsightedness and astigmatism, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

"Children should absolutely be seen before they start school," and about once a year until age 18 because their eyes will change, Wood said.

In addition to affecting school performance, vision problems can lead to headaches and fatigue, according to the American Optometric Association.

"Sometimes parents are appalled when I check their child's vision and they see how bad it is," Wood said. She said it's critical to diagnose and begin treating amblyopia as soon as possible to prevent loss of vision in the lazy eye.

"It's very serious, and if it's not caught at a young age, there's very little you can do about it," Wood said.

She and other members of the Hagerstown Lioness Club provide free vision screening for Washington County public school students in kindergarten and first, third, fifth and eighth grades. While helpful, such screenings "don't take the place of a complete eye exam," Wood said.

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