Ophthalmology is the medical specialty dealing with the eye. An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor specially trained to treat diseases associated with the eye. Glaucoma and cataracts are among the most common medical conditions treated by an ophthalmologist although practitioners of this specialty treat hundreds of other conditions.
Specialties within Ophthalmology
Several sub-specialties exist within the broader medical specialty of ophthalmology. Retinal specialist deal with the health problems of the retina. Located at the back of the eye, the retina converts the light into messages fed through the optic nerve to the brain. Cataract surgeons specialize in removing the lens from within the eye if it has become clouded. Many cataract surgeons also perform refractive surgery. This type of surgery reshapes the eye to improve vision. Pediatric ophthalmologists treat the medical eye conditions of children.
Ophthalmologists use a number of pieces of specialized equipment during an eye exam. This does include the eye chart to gauge the visual acuity or how well the patient sees. Other equipment measures the pressure in the eye while a slit lamp allows the doctor to look into the back of the eye to detect abnormalities. Photography is used to document the condition of the retina and the blood vessels in it.
Advances in cataract surgery in the past decades have produced notable improvements in the vision of patients post surgery. A cataract occurs when the lens of the eye clouds over as a natural part of aging. The ophthalmologist removes this clouded tissue and replaces it with an internal lens. The patient often sees better after the surgery than they had previous to developing the cataract. Cataract surgery is commonly performed as a day surgery requiring no hospitalization.
Ophthalmologists practicing refractive surgery commonly use a laser to reshape the front of the eye to improve the vision of the patient. This surgery is considered elective and not commonly covered by insurance. Patients seek this type of surgery to eliminate the need and cost of prescription eyeglasses and to improve their quality of life.
Glaucoma is damage to the retina and optic nerve caused by increased pressure within the eye. Testing includes measuring the pressure but also testing the visual field. These tests determine if there has been a loss of vision either around the perimeter of the normal visual field or in pockets within the normal field of vision. Glaucoma is commonly treated with eye drops but can also be surgically treated.
If you think of the eye as a camera, the retina is the film or sensor. It is the organ that converts light into impulses that are understandable to the brain. The retina can detach from the back of the eye or from the optic nerve. In other situations, complications of diabetes can cause increases in the blood vessels within the retina restricting vision. Surgical treatment may be necessary in some retinal cases.
Some ophthalmic conditions require treatment when the patient is still a child. A condition known as strabismus occurs when the eyes do not align. This is better known as cross-eyed. Strabismus can be treated with prescription glasses and exercise but may require surgery in some cases. Amblyopia, sometimes called lazy eye, occurs the child only sees effectively from one eye. Treatment may include an eye patch to make the lazy eye work harder. In some cases strabismus and amblyopia both occur. Pediatric ophthalmology also includes the treatment of a number of congenital defects to the eye that may be detected shortly after birth.