The term "eye doctor" is used pretty loosely, at least in the United States. There are actually two types of professionals who this title could be referring to. The first is optometrists. These medical professionals are not technically medical doctors, although they do hold an advanced, professional degree. They specialize in analyzing vision and prescribing glasses and contacts. Then, there are ophthalmologists; these are medical doctors who specialize in treating conditions of the eye.
So should you see an optometrist or an ophthalmologist? That depends. If you just need an annual eye exam, head to the optometrist. But if any of the following are true, you are better off making an appointment with an ophthalmologist.
1. Your visual field seems to be getting smaller.
Losing visual acuity is one thing. You may just need stronger glasses. A decreasing visual field, meaning that you feel like you can't see as wide of an area anymore, is usually caused by a more serious problem such as glaucoma or diabetic retinopathy. You will need an ophthalmologist to diagnose and treat your condition as it's more than a simple loss of vision.
2. You are considering eye surgery.
Are you thinking of getting laser surgery to correct your vision? Even if you are just starting to think about whether you want to take this route, you will need to see an ophthalmologist. They are better able to assess the overall health of your eyes and the shape of your eyes to tell you what procedures you may be a candidate for.
3. You have a history of melanoma in your family.
Melanoma is best known as a cancer of the skin. However, your eyes also contain melanocytes — the pigment-producing cells that are affected by melanoma. If you have a family history of this condition, or if you have spent a lot of time in the sun without sunglasses, it's wise to see an ophthalmologist and get checked for ocular melanoma. (Don't worry; the testing is painless.)
4. You have diabetes.
Diabetics are at an increased risk for eye-related conditions — especially retinopathy. Often, there are diabetic changes to your eyes before your vision is actually affected. An ophthalmologist can detect those changes early and prevent them from getting worse.
While many people can get away with simply seeing an optometrist for regular vision checkups, there are definitely times when an ophthalmologist's opinion is called for. Make sure you know who to call, when. To learn more, contact an ophthalmology eye care clinic in your area.