Do you have a close one who has been diagnosed with high blood pressure? With over 1.28 billion people suffering from the condition globally, the answer from most of us is probably a resounding `yes’.
High blood pressure or hypertension is the primary or contributing factor in several ailments, including cardiovascular disease, which is one of the major causes for death globally. But one of the less known and rarely discussed conditions caused by uncontrolled high blood pressure is hypertensive retinopathy.
The retinas of our eyes contain numerous delicate blood vessels that carry oxygenated blood to every microscopic retinal cell. If the blood pressure remains high for prolonged periods, these vessels become weak and bulge, causing inefficient blood perfusion that starves retinal cells of oxygen. In extreme cases, there could be internal bleeding in the eye and permanent damage to the eye.
Keep a check
Which is why medical experts recommend that hypertensive people, along with keeping an eye on heart health and diabetes, should also focus on eye health.
According to Dr Mohit Sharma, a Chandigarh-based specialist treating people with diabetes and hypertension for around 15 years, “Hypertensive retinopathy was never a common condition, but these days we’re seeing every fifth patient (in India) diagnosed with hypertension suffering from this condition.”
No early clues
He says it is tricky to detect hypertensive retinopathy in the early stages of the condition as elevated blood pressure is not constant in those suffering from hypertension. The only known way to diagnose and treat hypertensive retinopathy is to manage the underlying condition of high blood pressure.
Only after the eye damage is done will a person develop symptoms that include blurred vision, swelling and itching in the eyes, patches of blood in the eye, or double vision, headache – or worse – partial or total loss of vision.
Experts recommend visiting an ophthalmologist immediately if a hypertensive person develops any of these symptoms.
“If you have diabetes along with hypertension, the risk of retinal damage gets compounded,” says Dr Ruchir Tewari, a Noida-based ophthalmologist with over 10 years of experience. “The signs of retinal damage can only be seen on eye examination as the person won’t show any symptoms. Major symptoms such as vision loss are experienced, but only after the damage is done.”
For people diagnosed with hypertension, frequent eye check-ups are a must, even if they are using medication to control the condition. This is to save the delicate retina or the tissue near it from damage.
“Prevention is better than cure for hypertensive retinopathy,” adds Dr Tewari. “At least in the case of diabetic retinopathy there are some symptoms, but retinopathy comes in suddenly when it is related to hypertension.”
There are also some treatments to reduce swelling and blood patches in the eyes, with the priority being to prevent further damage to the eyes. In people who can control their hypertension, the signs of mild retinopathy can still show up after a period of 13-15 years, experts say. This is because even when hypertension is controlled, the individual’s blood pressure stays fluctuating in the upper limit.
However, in people who have uncontrolled hypertension, retinopathy may occur much earlier and the symptoms could be severe.
Countering the threat
The relieving news is that it is possible to counter retinopathy by managing high blood pressure, starting with eating a balanced diet and having an active lifestyle.
“The only treatment for a patient with hypertensive retinopathy is taking medication for life. If you don’t want to develop this condition, changing your lifestyle is very important,” suggests Dr Sharma.
But a lot more needs to be done in terms of creating awareness and getting people to manage their hypertension and the conditions that come along with it.