Your Eye Exam Revealed an Eye Disease, Now What?

Here are some of the treatment options you can expect, and the doctors who will administer them.

woman at an eye exam

Routine eye exams are often just that — routine. But sometimes, they can result in an unexpected diagnosis and uncover an eye disease you never knew you had. 

Millions of Americans are diagnosed with eye conditions each year, including cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, and age-related macular degeneration, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Left untreated, some of these conditions can cause vision loss or even blindness. 

The good news: Uncovering an eye disease, particularly in its earliest stages, is always a good thing, says Mark Ventocilla, O.D. He’s a Michigan–based optometrist with America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses. But letting an eye disease go undetected and untreated is much worse for your health in the long run.  

Certain conditions such as macular degeneration can be slowed down, which can help prevent vision loss, says Dr. Ventocilla. With others, such as diabetic retinopathy, vision can often be restored and preserved by bringing down blood sugar levels along with timely and appropriate treatment. 

In some ways, eye conditions are like leaky pipes, Dr. Ventocilla says. “When you put your finger in a little tiny hole, you can stop it from bursting, thereby preventing the big leak that causes scarring and vision loss.” (This is an especially true analogy for eye issues that involve leaking blood vessels, such as diabetic retinopathy, he adds.) 

Depending on your eye disease, you may be prescribed medication, recommended for surgery or laser treatments, or referred to a low-vision specialist. Here’s what you can expect based on your diagnosis. 

If You Have Cataracts 

What it is: A cataract is a clouding of the lens that’s just behind the iris (the colored part of the eye), which can make it harder to see. Because cataracts can cause blurry or dim vision, people who have them often have trouble reading or driving, especially at night, explains Dr. Ventocilla.  

People are more likely to develop cataracts as they age. In fact, more than half of Americans age 80 or older have either had cataracts or had them removed, according to the National Eye Institute (NEI).   

How it’s treated: The only way to treat cataracts is with surgery. During the procedure, an ophthalmologist (an eye doctor who can perform surgery) will remove the cloudy lens and replace it with a clear, artificial lens that remains in place. Your optometrist can refer you to an ophthalmologist who specializes in cataract removal. 

“Typically, it’s a short outpatient procedure and you’re home the same day,” says Dr. Ventocilla. The success rate of the surgery is very high, according to the NEI. 

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If You Have Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD) 

What it is: As its name suggests, AMD occurs as the macula — the part of the eye that allows you to see straight ahead — becomes damaged over time, causing blurry central vision. A leading cause of vision loss in older adults, the condition usually gets progressively worse. 

How it’s treated: In the early stages, you may not need treatment. In the later stages, medications called anti-VEGF, which are injected, can slow vision loss. The injections are typically given by ophthalmologists who specialize in the retina (the part of the eye where the macula is), says Dr. Ventocilla. 

If You Have Glaucoma 

What it is: Glaucoma is an eye disease that often occurs when pressure builds up in the eye, damaging a nerve in the back of the eye (the optic nerve). Over time, and without treatment, people with glaucoma experience vision loss, starting with their side vision. 

How it’s treated: Ophthalmologists typically treat glaucoma using prescription eyedrops, which can help lower eye pressure and prevent further damage to the optic nerve. Laser treatments and surgery can also help drain fluid from the eye. People with more complicated cases may want to find a doctor who specializes in glaucoma, says Dr. Ventocilla. 

If You Have Diabetic Retinopathy 

What it is: Diabetic retinopathy can develop in people who have diabetes (that is, high blood sugar levels). It occurs when the blood vessels in the back of the eye begin to leak fluid. Sometimes the symptoms don’t appear until the condition is more advanced. In the later stages, people may see floaters (small dark spots that float across your vision) or cobweb-like streaks.  

How it’s treated: Treating diabetes — such as taking insulin to lower your blood sugar levels — can often resolve diabetic retinopathy. For more advanced conditions, an ophthalmologist can use anti-VEGF medications to slow down or reverse vision loss. Other people may need surgery or laser treatments to repair the damaged blood vessels. 

If You Have Retinal Detachment 

What it is: A retinal detachment occurs when the retina, which is in the back of the eye, starts to pull away from its normal position. Often, symptoms such as flashing lights or floaters occur suddenly. If the condition isn’t treated right away, the entire retina can detach, causing permanent vision loss. 

How it’s treated: A retinal detachment is an emergency, so you’ll need to be treated immediately by an ophthalmologist who specializes in retina care, says Dr. Ventocilla. Your doctor or local emergency department will give you a referral. 

Living with an Eye Disease 

Treating an eye disease with medication can help slow down vision loss (or, with diabetic retinopathy, restore it). But sometimes, a person’s condition can continue to progress, and in many cases, vision loss can’t be reversed or restored.   

If you have lost some vision, the next step may be to find a low-vision specialist who can help you maximize your remaining sight, says Dr. Ventocilla. These optometrists “specialize in the use of devices and optical equipment that help people with poor vision navigate the world,” he says. 

For example, a person who has trouble reading the small print in a book or on the computer might see the letters better by using certain magnifying devices, says Dr. Ventocilla. Low-mobility devices such as white canes can help you detect obstacles while you’re walking. Your eye doctor or primary care physician can help connect you with orientation and mobility specialists so that you can get the hang of the proper technique. Taking advantage of your remaining eyesight can help boost your quality of life.  

The one thing you don’t want to do is let poor eyesight get in the way of your friendships or stop you from pursuing interests and activities you enjoy. Let your optometrist or other eye care specialists know if you’re struggling or frustrated. There are tools and resources to help you adjust to living with a low-vision problem.