Know the Signs of Eye Trouble and What to Do About It
Arthritis is a broad category of inflammatory diseases, and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in particular is a systemic inflammatory disease — the symptoms can reach every area of your body. So, while RA is well known for attacking joints with pain, swelling and stiffness, it can just as easily bring that inflammation and discomfort to other organs and tissues.
Not every RA sufferer will experience eye changes, but it’s important to know which eye problems might pop up, and how to recognize them so you can protect your eye health and keep your vision sharp.
Why Your Eyes Are in Danger
RA sparks an autoimmune response that attacks certain components in your body, including the collagen in your connective tissue. There’s a good deal of connective tissue in your joints, and when this becomes inflamed, you experience the hallmark swelling, pain and stiffness in the knees, hips, hands and feet.
Your eyeballs also contain collagen; the highest concentration is in the sclera (the white of your eye) and the cornea (the lens). It follows that RA sufferers are particularly vulnerable to conditions that affect these two parts of the eyeball, although a variety of eye complications can occur.
Most Common Eye Problems With RA
The inflammation of RA can do a lot of damage to your eyes, but so can a lack of tear production, and even the medication you use to treat your condition. Here are some uncomfortable eye problems to watch out for, and why you should never ignore them:
Dry Eye Syndrome
Probably the most common eye problem that affects RA sufferers, dry eyes can be a mild irritation or a precursor to a serious problem. A lack of lubricating tears can make it feel like you have dirt in your eye, or a mild burning, and you may be more sensitive to light. Once the cornea begins to dry out, your vision may become blurry.
A healthy coating of natural tears not only keeps your eye moist and comfortable, it also protects against infection. Since medications are sometimes to blame for dry eyes, it may be worth looking into switching to another drug.
If your doctor detects Sjögren’s syndrome — an inflammatory disease that can occur alongside RA — good anti-inflammatory management and hydrating eye drops can help bring the symptoms under control.
RA can cause the whites of your eyes to thin, which sets the stage for serious trauma if you were to get a scratch or any foreign object lodged in your eye. The most obvious symptom of scleritis is redness over the white part that won’t go away, but it often brings severe pain and vision problems, too.
If you contract scleritis, you’ll need to take immediate steps to bring the inflammation down. Corticosteroid eye drops can help on the surface, but the condition likely runs deeper; keeping your RA under control with your systemic medication is vital for clearing up inflammation in the sclera.
Very dry eyes can leave them vulnerable to infection on the surface, a condition called conjunctivitis (commonly known as pink eye). When the cornea becomes infected and inflamed, your eyes could feel itchy and irritated, and your vision will suffer.
Sometimes the infection is more severe and penetrating. Although not as common as conjunctivitis, RA increases your risk of developing corneal melt, which is when your cornea develops a perforation, leading to a distortion in your iris and pupil and an open wound. This demands quick and careful treatment to keep your cornea and iris intact, and preserve your vision.
Next page: more common eye problems and when to seek medical attention.