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Parkinson’s disease is a progressive degenerative condition of the neurological system.  The majority of Parkinson’s effects are on movement, often starting off very slowly and subtly. One of the earliest symptoms is a slight tremor in one or both hands. Other early symptoms include a lack of facial expression and decreased blinking of the eyes, so it looks like the person is always staring.  

The next stage usually results in difficulty with initiating movement, especially walking.  It frequently looks like it takes a tremendous concentrated effort to initiate walking and the steps often start off very small with a shuffling of the feet.  At the same time, the disease stiffens the muscles of the arms so that when the person is walking there is a noticeable decrease in the swinging of the arms. Speech becomes much softer and writing becomes more of an effort, with handwriting getting smaller and smaller as the disease progresses.

Parkinson’s can also affect your visual performance, mainly in two parts of your eyes: the tear film and the ocular muscles.

It affects your tear film because of the decreased rate of blinking. The tear film is an important component of your optical system. It coats the surface of the cornea and if it is not smooth and uniform the result is a blurring of your vision. Blinking helps refresh your tear film and spreads it out uniformly. It is analogous to the washers and wipers on your car. If the windshield (like your cornea) is spotty you have a hard time seeing through that windshield. Turn on the washers and now there is more moisture on the surface but that is also spotty and hard to see through until the wipers go by and spread the moisture out evenly. That is very similar to how your cornea, tear film and your eyelids blinking interact to keep your vision clear.

If you don’t blink enough, the tear film begins to dry out in spots and having dry spots next to moist spots results in an irregular film and therefore blurred vision. That is how the decreased blinking frequency in people with Parkinson’s disease results in a complaint of intermittent blurred vision.

The other way the disease affects your vision is by creating a problem called convergence insufficiency. When you read, your two eyes turn inward toward each other in a process called convergence. Your eye muscles are activated in order to have the two eyes point inward to focus on the near object. By interfering with the interaction between your nerves and muscles, Parkinson’s makes it difficult to both initiate and sustain the convergence you need to keep both eyes focused on a near object.

This sometimes results in a disconnect between what a person is capable of reading on an eye chart for a short period of time and what happens after trying to sustain the effort over a longer period of time. This disconnect can result in some frustration. Often during an exam, a quick look at the distance eye chart allows the patient to see fairly well because the dry eye may not be causing any blurring if the patient just blinked a few times before reading the chart.  A patient may also do well on the near chart because they are often being tested one eye at a time. When you read things up close with just one eye there is no need for the eyes to converge so they do well one eye at a time.

There are some other less-frequent eye problems that can occur with Parkinson’s. One is called blepharospasm, where the eyelids on either one side or both forcefully close involuntarily. A person can also end up with a condition called apraxia of eye opening, where they can’t voluntarily open the eyelids. This is different from blepharospasm because in this condition the lids are not being forcefully closed, they just won’t open when you want them to.

The majority of these problems do improve if the Parkinson’s is treated with medication or even brain stimulation.

Article contributed by Dr. Brian Wnorowski, M.D.

This blog provides general information and discussion about eye health and related subjects. The words and other content provided on this blog, and in any linked materials, are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice. If the reader or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately licensed physician. The content of this blog cannot be reproduced or duplicated without the express written consent of Eye IQ.

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What can be expected during a contact lens fitting?

A patient can expect to have a different experience when having a contact lens fitting. In addition to the eyeglass exam, questions will be asked to determine which contact lens will work best for them. Will they want to leave the lenses in their eyes overnight or will they remove them every day? Will they wear them only occasionally or will they be for everyday use? Do they want a contact lens that they throw away every day or do they want a contact lens that they have to clean and disinfect? If the patient is over age 40 and has a compromised ability to see up close, how will they see up close with their contact lenses? Will they wear readers over their distant contacts, or will they wear multifocal contacts, or will they wear monovision?

Are some people more prone to having Dry Eyes than others?

Experiencing dry eye symptoms is more common as we grow older, particularly in people 50 years of age and older. Hormonal changes in women who are experiencing menopause or who are post-menopausal. Inflammation in our body can affect the tear gland's ability to produce tears. Eye or health conditions such as glaucoma, diabetes, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and Sjogren's Syndrome can be associated with Dry Eyes. Environmental conditions such as dry winter air, dry indoor heated air, working on the computer, and wearing contact lenses can cause Dry Eyes.

Are there advantages to single-use contact lenses? What are they?

Single-use daily wear contacts are convenient to the patient and a healthy recommendation from their eye doctor. At the end of the day, the patient only has to dispose of the contacts. There is no need to take the contacts out to clean and disinfect them. The patients time and money spent on solutions and caring for them are eliminated. Not to mention that the next time they wear a contact, they will be wearing a brand new contact! The single best recommendation your eye doctor can make is to recommend single-use daily wear contacts. They are the healthiest contact that can be worn. The contact lens pathology issues of wearing the same contact for two or four weeks such as neovascularization, microcystic edema, and bacterial infections are greatly reduced.

What is an eye infection?

Your eyes can get infections from bacteria, fungi, or viruses. Eye infections can occur in different parts of the eye and can affect just one eye or both. Two common eye infections are conjunctivitis (also known as pink eye) and lid styes which are swollen lid bumps that can also be painful. Common signs of an eye infection are pain, itching, or a sensation of a foreign body in the eye, photosensitivity, redness or small red lines in the white of the eye, discharge of yellow pus that may be crusty upon awaking, and tears.

What happens during a typical Diabetic Eye Exam?

Your Eye Doctor will evaluate the back of your eye called the Retina to check for leaking blood vessels. Diabetic retinopathy occurs when elevated blood sugars damage the walls of the blood vessels. The vessel walls may thicken, leak, develop clots, close off, or grow balloon-like defects called microaneurysms.

My eyes tear all the time. Why do you call it Dry Eyes?

Your eyes have extra tears because your eyes produce extra tears to combat irritation and dryness. A better way to describe Dry Eyes is tear film instability, which refers to the composition of your tears not being in the proper composition. Stopping eyes from producing extra tears is a goal in the treatment of Dry Eyes.

At what age should my child have his/her eyes examined?

If you ask 10 different Doctors you will get 10 different answers. Newborns have their eyes checked in the birthing ward for starters. From birth to age 5 their eyes are growing. At age 5 is a good time to schedule a regular eye examination, however, if any unusual eye behavior is observed under age 5 an eye exam should be scheduled at that time. Unusual eye behavior such as eye squinting, a head tilt, or having to get close to see.