At least 18% of people with rheumatoid arthritis develop eye disease. And when you consider the most common problem, dry eyes, the number may be as high as 44% of all rheumatoid arthritis patients.
Dry eyes and other eye diseases that commonly develop as a result of rheumatoid arthritis can cause serious complications, potentially leading to vision loss. Stephen Wolchok, MD, at Wolchok Eye Associates in Jacksonville, Florida, protects your eyes with individualized treatments that ease your symptoms and help prevent serious eye problems.
Here’s what you need to know about how rheumatoid arthritis affects your eyes and the types of eye problems you may develop.
How rheumatoid arthritis affects your eyes
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that develops when your immune system attacks collagen, an essential connective tissue in your joints. As a result, the tissues become inflamed and you develop joint pain and stiffness.
The underlying autoimmune disease doesn’t stop at your joints. It can attack collagen and cause inflammation in tissues anywhere in your body, including your eyes.
Your eyes are vulnerable because collagen is a key component of the cornea (the clear outer layer over the front of your eye) and sclera (the white layer covering your eye).
Eye conditions associated with rheumatoid arthritis
Dry eyes may be the most common problem, but it’s not the only one that affects people with rheumatoid arthritis. This type of arthritis puts you at risk of developing the following conditions:
Every time you blink, the movement draws a film of tears over your cornea. The tear film keeps your eyes healthy by clearing away dust and providing moisture and nutrients. If your body doesn’t make enough tears, or the tears evaporate too quickly, you develop dry eyes.
When you have one autoimmune condition, you have a high chance of developing another autoimmune disease. One such disease, Sjogren’s syndrome, commonly develops as a complication of rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, nearly one-third of patients with rheumatoid arthritis develop Sjogren’s syndrome.
Sjogren’s causes dry eyes because your immune system attacks the tissues in the moisture-secreting glands in your eyes.
Dry eyes cause symptoms such as:
- Stinging or burning eyes
- Scratchy eyes
- Red eyes
- Sensitivity to light
- Blurred vision
- Tired eyes
Many people use over-the-counter treatments to relieve dry eyes. But if you have rheumatoid arthritis, your dry eyes need professional care. Without appropriate treatment, dry eyes make your eyes susceptible to infection. Dry eyes also damage the cornea, which affects your vision.
Rheumatoid arthritis is the most common cause of scleritis (an inflamed sclera). When the white wall of your eye becomes inflamed, the tissues thin out. This is especially dangerous because the sclera can easily tear, and you can end up with a detached retina and vision loss.
If you develop symptoms such as red eyes, intense pain, blurry vision, and sensitivity to light, it’s time to schedule an appointment for a comprehensive eye exam.
Uveitis refers to inflammation in the middle layer of your eye, which includes your iris (the colored area in your eye) and the muscles that control the shape of your lens. Inflammatory cells can easily reach the uvea because it contains most of your eye’s blood vessels
The symptoms of uveitis are similar to many other eye conditions:
- Blurry vision
- Eye pain
- Red eyes
- Light sensitivity
There are several types of uveitis, depending on the area of the eye that’s inflamed. The severity of the problem and its potential complications, including vision loss, depend on the type you develop.
Peripheral ulcerative keratitis (PUK)
Rheumatoid arthritis accounts for 34% of all cases of PUK, a condition that occurs when the immune system causes inflammation in your cornea. PUK often occurs along with scleritis, but typically affects one eye. Like the other eye problems, it causes pain, light sensitivity, and changes in your vision.
If you have rheumatoid arthritis and develop eye symptoms, don’t wait to schedule a consultation. Call our office or request an appointment online today. Early treatment protects your eyes by preventing complications.