Your Eyes Can Reveal How Healthy You Are
Eyes are the mirror of the soul - and your body!
There is no doubt that eyes are one of the first things that attract us to another person. You can tell when a person is amused, angry, sad or bored just by looking at their eyes. However, the eyes can also tell a great deal about what health issues may be going on inside the body as well as conditions that might affect the eye itself. It is the only organ of the body where you can see nerves, veins and arteries without cutting into anything.
Basic facts about our eyes
- The eye is about 2.5 cm wide and 2.3cm high.
- The strong outer coat of the eye is called the Sclera and helps to maintain the shape of the eye.
- The eye is covered by a protective coating called the conjunctiva. The conjunctiva is a continuous layer that also protects the inside of the eyelid. If this coating becomes inflamed, then this is called conjunctivitis.
- The clear area within the sclera is called the cornea. Light enters the eye through the cornea
- The muscles that move the eye are connected to the sclera and are called the 'extraocular muscles'.
- The choroid - the second layer, contains blood vessels and has within it two structures. These are the iris and the ciliary body. The iris is the coloured section of the eye and controls the dark spot called the pupil. The ciliary body adjusts the lense at the back of the eye to allow us to focus our vision.
- The retina is the light sensing part of our eye and contains special cells that allow us to see at night, in colour and fine detail.
- From the retina a group of nerves collect to form the optic nerve that sends signals to the brain.
This brief overview shows how complex the eye is - how then can it reflect the state of our heatlh?
Fun facts about the eyes
1. Second only to the brain, the eye is the most complex organ in the body.
2. There are over 2 million working parts in the human eye.
3. The human eyeball weighs about 28g.
4. The human eye can distinguish over 500 shades of gray.
5. Your nose begins to run when you cry, because the tears pour into the nasal cavaties.
6. Human beings are very visual - about half our brain is dedicated to sight. This is very different to many animals whose primary sense is smell.
7. Over 36,000 pieces of information are processed by the human eye every hour.
What do the eyes tell the professionals about your health
The eye can tell us about a number of medical conditions from minor to life threatening. It's usually a qualified specialist who will look into your eyes to assess their health and for any signs of potential health problems.
The list of conditions that the eye can give information about is significant. Here are some of the most common that either an optometrist or ophthalmologist may discover:
The retina of the eye:
Two signs often discovered on the retina of the eye are damage to tiny blood vessels and nerves. These are both indications that a person may have diabetes and/or high blood pressure.In addition there could be a leakage of pale-yellow fluid and white dots known as 'cotton wool spots'. These white spotted areas can also be an indication of AIDS.
A specialist may also find tiny, yellow discolourations and these are arterial plaques an indication of serious health problems. The condition that is usually present when these plaques are present is severe atherosclerosis. This is where your arteries are becoming clogged up due to plaques blocking them and leads to cardiovascular disease.
The Optic Nerve:
When a specialist looks into the eye at the optic nerve they are looking for a nice healthy colour. If the colour of the nerve is very pale this indicates that there is a poor blood supply to the nerve. This sign could mean that a condition such as Multiple Sclerosis or some form of tumour is present.
A specialist will also be able to pick up signs of glaucoma by looking at the health of the optic nerve and testing the pressure within the eye. Glaucoma is where the optic nerve becomes damaged due to lack of oxygen and increased pressure within the eye. Basically the normal fluid channels in the eye become blocked. Although glaucoma can run in families and people with conditions such as diabetes are more prone to it, the exact cause is still unknown.
The lens of the eye:
The main condition that a specialist will pick up on with regards to the lens is cataracts. Usually cataracts are an age related condition where the lens becomes cloudy and much less transparent. The cataract slowly covers the lens until vision is badly impaired. However, the operation to remove cataracts is fairly straightforward.
Lets now look at the signs that you can see and what they might be telling you about your health.
Your health and the visible signs eyes show
Although the majority of signs the eyes give out are invisible to most of us, there are other signs that are evident to us all. You may have seen at least some of these before:
- Bloody eye
There are many tiny blood vessels within the protective coating of the eye called the conjunctiva. If these vessels burst, the blood can pool on the white of the eye - the sclera. Medically this is known as a subconjunctiva haemorrage The reasons for this can be simply a blow to the eye, but in most cases the cause is unknown. However, in rare circumstances this can also be a sign of dangerously high blood pressure.
- Dark circles under the eyes.
According to NHS UK Research, the most common reason for dark circles is not ill health but because they run in the family. However, dark circles can appear with certain medical conditions and body changes such as - allergies, asthma, pregnancy, menstruation and even the contraceptive pill on occasion will cause dark circles. Age can also be a factor as the skin begins to thin and discolouration becomes more pronounced. Sun exposure can also increase melanin levels in the skin, so darkening the tone. Lack of sleep and illness doesn't cause dark circles. What tends to happen is that the skin in the face is usually paler due to tiredness, stress or being unwell, and this lack of colour makes dark circles much more prominent.
- Bags/puffiness under the eyes.
These are usually not harmful but in some cases they can be a sign of a serious underlying condition such as heart, kidney, liver problems or high blood pressure.
- Yellow sclera instead of white.
This is one of the most common signs of jaundice and can be associated with liver disease - for example cirrhosis and hepatitis. The yellow colour is caused by the build up of bilirubin. This compound is a natural product produced by the breakdown of haemoglobin and is eventually excreted in bile due to the actions of the liver. However jaundice can also be a sign of blood or spleen disorders not just the liver.
- Protruding eyes/bulging eyes.
Often this is just a genetic trait carried on through families. However, it can also be a sign of disease of the thyroid gland. In this condition the tissues surrounding the eye become congested and swollen, giving the appearance that the eyes are protruding.
- Unequal pupils of the eye.
If there is a distinct difference in reactions between one pupil and another - for example one is larger, one reacts slower or not at all - then this is often an indication of some kind of brain trauma such as a stroke, head injury, tumour. However, drug abuse can also cause these unequal reactions in the eyes.
- Eyelid that droops.
The medical term for this is called ptosis and normally it is cause by something mundane such as eye strain or ageing. However, it can also be an indicator of medical conditions such as a stroke. It can also be a sign of a neurological disorder called Myasthenia Gravis, (MG). It is quite rare though for a droopy eyelid to be a symptom of these conditions.
- Thickening of the eyelids.
In a few rare incidents this can be a symptom of neurofibromatosis. This is a hereditary disorder where there are numerous growths of tumours along nerve fibres. One of the most famous patients who was believed to have had this horrific condition was John Merrick, the 19th century Englishman, also cruelly known as the 'elephant man'. However, medical experts now think that John Merrick suffered from another, equally distressing illness, called Proteus Syndrome.
- Bloodshot eyes
Blood shot eyes are not always a sign of a hangover. Many people with severe allergies have blood shot eyes and it is also present in some bacterial infections of the eye. It could also be a symptom of Iritis - inflammation of the coloured part of the eye. In rarer cases, according to author Dr Dawn Harper, it can also be a sign of arthritis.
- Pale eyelids
The skin inside the lower lid of the eye should be a healthy pink colour. If this area is pale then it is usually a sign of iron deficiency anaemia.
- Twitching eye
The medical term for this is myokymia and is caused by the contraction of random muscles in the eye. It can be sign of a number of conditions, but more commonly it indicates a lack of magnesium in the diet. In addition it can also be an indicator of much more serious ailments of the nervous system such as multiple sclerosis.
Eye tests and eye care
Although there are many diseases and conditions that the eyes can indicate, most of us, thankfully, do have healthy eyes. So how do we keep our eyes in good condition? Here is a few tips on how to keep them healthy:
- Regular eye examinations - at least once every two years. Even if you feel you don't need glasses or contact lenses, the optician can check your eyes for other health issues.
- A healthy diet and weight are also important to keep your eyes healthy and helps to protect against many conditions that may affect the eyes.
- Always cover your eyes when out in the sun. UVA and UVB rays can can increase the risk of both cataracts and AMD,(age related macular degeneration).
- Be careful when carrying out tasks at home. DIY causes thousands of injuries every year that could have been avoided by wearing safety goggles.
Our eyes, like the rest of our body, have to last a lifetime. Although the eyes are delicate, they are more than capable of remaining strong and healthy for decades and beyond. It's up to us to ensure that we play our part in maintaining their health.
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© 2012 Helen Murphy Howell