What is ophthalmology?

Ophthalmology is the study of medical conditions relating to the eye. Ophthalmologists are doctors who specialize in the medical and surgical treatment of this organ.

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What is an ophthalmologist?

An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating eye-related conditions.

To practice in the United States, ophthalmologists must complete:

  • 4 years of college and a medical degree
  • a 1 year postgraduate clinical year
  • at least 36 months of residency training that focuses on ophthalmology
  • certification with the American Board of Ophthalmology, which involves written and oral exams

Some ophthalmologists undergo a year or two of fellowship training specializing in one of the many subspecialties of ophthalmology, such as:

  • glaucoma
  • the cornea
  • the retina
  • uveitis
  • refractive surgery
  • pediatrics
  • neuro-ophthalmology
  • plastic and reconstructive surgery
  • ocular oncology

Subspecialist ophthalmologists have usually completed training that allows them to work on eye conditions that are complex, involve a specific part of the eye, or affect certain groups of people. They also train more extensively than regular ophthalmologists to perform extremely intricate surgeries on delicate parts of the eye.

What conditions do they treat?

Ophthalmologists are responsible for the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of almost all eye conditions and visual issues.

However, subspecialist ophthalmologists tend to treat and monitor certain conditions, such as:

  • glaucoma
  • retinal conditions, such as macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy
  • corneal conditions
  • cataracts
  • cases involving children or childhood eye conditions
  • cases with a neurological cause or component, such as optic nerve problems, abnormal eye movements, double vision, and some kinds of vision loss
  • cases involving complex surgical procedures, such as reconstructive surgery or advanced vision repair

Aside from caring for the eyes and vision, an ophthalmologist’s medical training may also equip them to notice symptoms of conditions that do not directly relate to the eye. In such cases, they can refer people for the appropriate treatment.

Many ophthalmologists also participate in some form of scientific research focusing on the causes of eye and vision conditions, as well as potential cures.

Most ophthalmologists are trained and certified to perform a wide range of medical and surgical procedures. The procedures that an ophthalmologist regularly carries out depend on several factors, such as the type of practice and specialty in which they work.

Some of the most common everyday procedures that an ophthalmologist will perform include diagnosing and monitoring mild eye and vision conditions. They will also spend time prescribing and fitting glasses and contact lenses to correct vision problems.

Subspecialist ophthalmologists tend to perform a smaller range of procedures on a day-to-day basis, focusing instead on the treatment of one condition or a few related conditions.

Procedures that subspecialists commonly perform include:

  • diagnosis and monitoring of moderate-to-severe eye conditions
  • cataract surgery
  • glaucoma surgery
  • refractive surgery to correct vision
  • cancer treatment
  • reconstructive surgery to repair trauma or birth abnormalities, such as crossed eyes
  • chronic or severe tear duct infections or blockages
  • monitoring or consulting on cases relating to other conditions, such as diabetic retinopathy or immune conditions
  • injections around the eyes and face to alter facial structure function and appearance
  • repairing torn or detached retinas
  • corneal transplants

When to see an ophthalmologist

Most people see an ophthalmologist because they are experiencing chronic or severe vision symptoms or signs of eye conditions, such as:

  • bulging eyes
  • reduced, distorted, blocked, or double vision
  • excessive tearing
  • eyelid abnormalities or problems
  • seeing colored circles or halos around lights
  • misaligned eyes
  • black specks or strings called floaters in the field of view
  • seeing flashes of light
  • unexplained eye redness
  • loss of peripheral vision

A person may need emergency care from an ophthalmologist if their symptoms include:

  • sudden vision loss or changes
  • sudden or severe eye pain
  • eye injury