If you have arthritis, you are already familiar with this chronic disease that causes swelling and pain in parts of the body. Most people think arthritis mainly affects the body’s joints—like hands, wrists, and feet. But did you know it can sometimes affect other parts of the body, including your eyes?
How Does Arthritis Affect the Eye?
A type of arthritis called rheumatoid arthritis (RA) damages the connective tissue covering the ends of joint bones. This connective tissue is made mostly of a substance called collagen. Collagen is also the primary substance of the eye’s sclera and cornea.
Rheumatoid arthritis is considered a disease of the entire body (systemic disease) because it can also affect the body’s heart and lung systems.
Dry Eyes and Arthritis
Many people who have arthritis also suffer from dry eye. Dry eye can also be related to Sjogren's syndrome, a disorder of the immune system that is often linked with RA. Women are more likely than men to have dry eye with arthritis.
If left untreated, dry eye is not only uncomfortable but can lead to infections and corneal scarring. People with dry eye and arthritis may need to use an ointment, artificial tears, or eye drop medicine to help keep their eyes moist. Also, you might have tiny plugs (called punctal plugs) inserted in your tear ducts to help keep tears on the eye surface.
Other Arthritis-Related Eye Problems
The hallmark of arthritis—inflammation—can lead to vision problems when your eyes are affected.
Some people with arthritis may develop scleritis, especially adults between the ages of 40 and 70 years old. This is when inflammation thins the sclera, or eye wall. Scleritis symptoms can appear as continuously red eyes (despite using eye drops), deep eye pain and light sensitivity. Scleritis can be dangerous because an injury to the eye may cause the thinning eyeball to split open.
Uveitis is another arthritis-related eye condition. This is when the uvea—the layer of tissue between the retina and sclera, including the iris—becomes inflamed. Eye pain, light sensitivity and blurry vision are symptoms of uveitis.
Steroid medicine may help control scleritis and uveitis inflammation. But it’s important to know that steroid use, as well as the inflammation it treats, can lead to other eye problems.
Some people with arthritis may develop glaucoma. This happens when inflammation affects the part of the eye that helps drain fluid. Glaucoma can also develop as a side effect of corticosteroid use for arthritis treatment. If fluid can’t drain properly, eye pressure can increase and damage the optic nerve, causing vision loss. Glaucoma has no symptoms in its early stages. Eventually, you might see colored halos around lights. Things will look blurry or you will notice blank spots in your field of vision. Eye drop medication can help reduce eye pressure. Sometimes surgery may be needed to help improve the flow of fluid from the eye.
Using steroid medication to treat arthritis can also increase your risk of developing cataracts. This is when the eye’s naturally clear lens becomes cloudy. Cataracts make things look blurry and colors appear faded. It also makes seeing at night difficult. With cataract surgery, your ophthalmologist can remove the cloudy natural lens and replace it with an artificial lens to improve your vision.
Because using steroids long-term can affect your eyes, you should see an ophthalmologist to help preserve your vision. You should also talk with your doctors about how you might limit using steroids.
Controlling Inflammation Helps Your Body and Your Vision
If you have arthritis and notice changes in your vision or other eye problems, it may mean you have inflammation in your eyes. Treating eye inflammation always involves treating the arthritis inflammation throughout your body. It’s important to work with your doctors to help keep your arthritis under control.
Whether or not you have arthritis, finding and treating eye problems early can help prevent vision loss. See your ophthalmologist regularly or as they recommend to protect your sight.
Don’t Let Arthritis Steal Your Vision!
People with arthritis risk developing eye problems. If you are treating your arthritis with steroids, or if you have the following symptoms, be sure to see your ophthalmologist for a medical eye exam:
- Dry eyes (eyes that burn, itch or feel gritty)
- Continuously red eyes (with blurred vision, pain or light sensitivity)
- Severe eye pain (with light sensitivity, tearing or redness)