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Regular checkups with an optometrist or ophthalmologist should be part of your health routine—even if you’ve never needed glasses or contacts. Eye exams can help you to see better, of course, if you’re having difficulty with blurriness or eye strain. But just as important as checking your vision is ensuring your eye health; even people with 20/20 vision need annual exams to rule out eye diseases and other potential issues—diabetes, high blood pressure, and even some forms of cancer can have symptoms a comprehensive eye exam can detect.

For adults, it’s recommended to get eye exams annually. Luckily, many health insurers provide eye coverage that includes a standard checkup. If you’ve never seen an optometrist or ophthalmologist, now’s the time. Here’s everything you need to know for your first eye appointment.

How to Choose the Right Eye Doctor for You

When searching for a doctor of optometry, take into consideration any eye health or overall health needs you may have. Consider credentials, location, membership in professional associations, specialties, and comfort when selecting the right optometrist for you. “As with other physicians, you want to make sure you’re comfortable having important healthcare conversations with your optometrist,” Dr. Christopher Quinn, O.D., president of the American Optometric Association told ZocDoc. “You should be able to answer their questions openly.”

The Difference Between an Optometrist and an Ophthalmologist

Which type of eye doctor you see may depend on the level of care you seek. An optometrist is a primary healthcare doctor of the eye who performs eye exams and writes prescriptions for corrective lenses. An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor who specializes in eye care including ocular diseases and can perform eye surgery. Optometrists typically coordinate treatment with ophthalmologists for advanced care.

What an Eye Exam Involves

During your appointment, your optometrist will conduct a comprehensive eye exam that assesses the health of your eyes and vision. Each patient’s symptoms, along with the doctor’s professional judgment, will determine what tests are conducted.

A regular, in-person comprehensive eye exam typically has many steps, though your doctor may adjust based on your individual needs. Before the physical examination, the optometrist or a staff member will ask about your patient history. This includes, but is not limited to, any current eye or vision problems, overall health history, current medical problems, current medications, and your family and social history. After receiving this information, the optometrist will begin the examination by looking at all structures of the eye and surrounding areas.

When examining the eyes, the optometrist will test your visual abilities—visual acuity, depth perception, color vision, eye muscle movements, peripheral or side vision, and the way pupils respond to light. In addition, your optometrist will look at how your eyes work together to see a clear, single image by checking your eyes’ movements and focus.

Eye Exam Testing

Though most of us are familiar with vision tests (such as those required of drivers getting or renewing their licenses), eye exams are more elaborate and involve several tests and inspections. Nevertheless, getting a comprehensive eye exam is nothing to be afraid of. “Don’t be nervous or afraid,” Dr. Quinn advises. “The exam typically lasts 20 to 30 minutes and is usually painless.”

What’s Being Tested

  • Refraction. Determining appropriate lenses for an individual’s needs. 
  • Retinoscopy, aberrometry and/or auto refraction. Measuring how the eye focuses to determine nearsightedness, farsightedness, and/or astigmatism.
  • Cover testing (phorometry). An assessment of eye muscle coordination for diagnosing “lazy eye” and “turned eye.” 
  • Slit-lamp examination. A highly magnified view of the eye’s anatomy via a bio microscope to look for diseases and physical changes.
  • Tonometry. Determining intraocular pressure. Elevated intraocular pressure may indicate glaucoma.   
  • Pupillary dilation. Many optometrists recommend pupil dilation with eye drops to check for eye diseases or health issues. Your eyes will be sensitive to light afterward, so bring a pair of sunglasses to wear when you leave. If you need to return to work or have other commitments that light sensitivity could interfere with (it can be difficult to focus on words on a computer screen, e.g.), you can schedule a follow-up appointment and get dilated then.

Though a typical outcome of an eye exam is a new prescription for glasses and contact lenses, if a health condition is diagnosed during an exam, optometrists will help navigate patients to the right prevention plans or the next steps to manage the condition.

“Depending on the doctor’s findings, additional tests might be necessary to rule out potential problems, clarify uncertain findings, or provide a more in-depth assessment,” Quinn says. After the examination, the optometrist will describe the health findings, discuss any visual or eye health problems, and explain your treatment options.  

The Importance of Going to an Optometrist

Optometrists help patients take their first steps towards healthier eyes and healthier bodies. “Many eye and vision problems have no obvious signs or symptoms, so you might not know a problem exists unless you have a comprehensive eye exam,” Quinn says. “These exams ensure early diagnosis and treatment, so it’s very important to visit your doctor!”

“The eyes act like a window to the human body,” Quinn says. “They are the only place where an optometrist can view the health of the brain, nerves, and blood vessels without cutting into or scanning a body part, such as an X-ray, MRI or CT scan.” Regular, comprehensive eye exams reveal more than just vision issues—they can reveal diseases that may threaten eyesight and overall health, such as diabetes, hypertension, and other systemic diseases.

And if you leave with a prescription for a new pair of glasses you’ll love, so much the better.


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