If you have arthritis
Arthritis is most commonly associated with painful swollen joints, but autoimmune (inflammatory) forms of arthritis, like rheumatoid arthritis (RA) cause your body to attack its own healthy tissues. As a result, inflammatory arthritis can affect other parts of the body, including your eyes. Osteoarthritis only affects your joints and not your eyes.
If you have inflammatory arthritis, or another autoimmune disease like lupus or Sjogren’s syndrome, it is important to have your eyes checked regularly so that any developing conditions can be diagnosed and treated quickly. With many of these conditions, the faster you can be treated, the more of your sight can be restored or preserved.
If you develop any of the symptoms listed below, or notice any changes with your eyes or vision, seek advice from your doctor immediately.
How does inflammatory arthritis affect your eyes?
Inflammatory arthritis damages collagen, a substance that makes up the connective tissue covering the ends of joint bones. Collagen is also the primary component of the sclera (white part of your eye) and cornea.
There are a few different eye conditions that can be brought about by inflammatory arthritis:
Dry eye syndrome
Dry eye syndrome occurs when the eye cannot produce enough tears. Symptoms may include eye irritation, a gritty feeling in the eyes, dry eyes, redness, stinging or burning and blurred vision. It can lead to infection or damage to the cornea. Dry eye syndrome is also commonly linked with another autoimmune condition called Sjogren’s syndrome, which often co-occurs with inflammatory arthritis.
The uvea is the middle layer of the eye which includes the iris (coloured part of the eye), the ciliary body (ring of muscle behind the iris), and the choroid (layer of tissue that supports the retina). Uveitis is a condition involving the inflammation of this layer and symptoms may include pain in one or both eyes, redness, blurred vision, sensitivity to light, and floaters (shadows that move across your field of vision). If left untreated, uveitis can lead to permanent vision loss. It is very important that uveitis is diagnosed and treated as quickly as possible.
Scleritis is a condition where the white part of your eye, called the sclera, becomes severely inflamed, thinning the eye wall. Symptoms may include eye pain (which may spread throughout the face), excessive tear production, reduced or blurry vision, sensitivity to light, redness of the sclera, headaches, pain when moving your eye, eye irritation, and double vision. If left untreated, scleritis can lead to partial or complete vision loss. It is very important that scleritis is diagnosed and treated as quickly as possible.
Glaucoma is usually caused by increased pressure in the eye damaging the optic nerve. When inflammatory arthritis affects the part of the eye that drains fluid, this can cause increased pressure in the eye and lead to glaucoma. Glaucoma can also develop as a side-effect of corticosteroid treatment for arthritis.
Glaucoma can become quite advanced before symptoms appear, but the damage it causes cannot be undone. Therefore, it is very important to have regular eye tests so that glaucoma can be diagnosed and treated early. When symptoms do appear these may include seeing coloured halos around lights, blurry vision, and blank spots.
Inflammatory arthritis and steroid treatment for arthritis can increase your risk of developing cataracts.
Cataracts cause the lens in the eye (which is normally transparent) to become cloudy. Cataracts make your vision blurry, colours appear faded, and makes it difficult seeing at night.
If I have inflammatory arthritis, how can I protect my eyesight?
Monitor your eyes and vision
Many of the eye conditions associated with arthritis can have drastic and permanent effects on your sight, but catching them early can make a huge difference. Make sure you are attending regular eye tests so that any conditions can be diagnosed and treated as quickly as possible. If you notice any changes to your vision, or dryness, redness, or pain in your eyes, speak to your doctor immediately.
Take your medication
Reducing inflammation across your whole body is key to preventing eye conditions that arise from arthritis. It is important to take any medication you have been prescribed as instructed, even if you start to feel better, to prevent flare-ups and further problems.
If you have any questions or concerns about your medication, talk to your healthcare team. Also check with them before taking any over-the-counter remedies, such as nutritional supplements or painkillers, as these may interfere with your medication.