High blood pressure
Blood vessel damage, including weakening and narrowing of the arteries, can signal high blood pressure, says Jessica Ciralsky, MD, assistant professor of ophthalmology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. Multiple large-scale studies have found links between heart disease and narrowing of small blood vessels in the retina, according to a paper in the American Journal of Medicine. These connections are particularly strong in people without traditional heart disease risk factors.
Optic neuritis—inflammation of the optic nerve—can be a harbinger of MS, a degenerative disease of the nervous system, says Mitchell Munson, president of the American Optometric Association. Optic neuritis occurs in 75 percent of patients with MS and is the first symptom of the disease in up to 25 percent of cases. (A diagnosis of optic neuritis doesn’t automatically mean you have MS; it could also be the result of an infection or other causes.) “Patients with optic neuritis often have blurred vision, but I have diagnosed this in some people with no symptoms at all,” Munson says. Watch out for more silent MS symptoms that are easy to overlook.
About 25 percent of RA patients have eye issues; dry eye is the most common. Another clue: “If a patient has two bouts of iritis—painful inflammation of the iris, or the colored part—in a year, or three in 18 months, we suspect rheumatoid arthritis,” Munson says. People with RA, an inflammatory disease that affects small joints in the hands and feet, have high levels of inflammatory chemicals in their blood. Sometimes these can migrate to the eyeball as well as to the joints, explains Munson.