If you’ve recently been diagnosed with keratoconus, you probably know what it’s like to visit multiple eye doctors. When it comes to getting your eyes checked, especially if you’re living with a progressive eye condition, it’s important to ensure you’re seen by the appropriate eye care professionals to address your specific needs – whether that’s simply getting fitted for a new lens prescription or a consultation for a procedure.

For those living with keratoconus, both an ophthalmologist and optometrist are integral to your overall care and each plays a distinct role. We all know that an ophthalmologist is critical to your keratoconus journey, especially if you or someone you know has received iLink FDA-approved cross-linking or a corneal transplant. However, eye doctors who’ve earned a Doctor in Optometry (OD) degree, known as optometrists, also serve a key purpose in your care.

In this blog, we’re breaking down what an optometrist is and how they differ from an ophthalmologist, the role they play in a keratoconus diagnosis, and more! You’ll also hear from some OD experts and others in the Living with KC community.

What Is an Optometrist and How Does This Doctor Differ From an Ophthalmologist?

Optometrists are eye care professionals who provide primary vision care, which can range from vision testing and optical correction to disease diagnosis, treatment, and management. They may diagnose eye conditions in their own office or refer patients to other optometrists or ophthalmologists for additional diagnostic testing. If an OD makes a diagnosis, people may be referred to an ophthalmologist to discuss potential surgical or therapeutic treatment options.

On the other hand, an ophthalmologist is a medical or osteopathic doctor who specializes in eye care and can diagnose and treat eye diseases. They also perform surgery, like corneal transplants or LASIK, and can perform less-invasive treatments, like iLink FDA-approved cross-linking for the treatment of progressive keratoconus or corneal ectasia following refractive surgery. Both optometrists and ophthalmologists may also be involved in scientific research on causes, treatments, and cures for eye diseases and vision disorders.

What Role Does an Optometrist Play in a Keratoconus Diagnosis?

When it comes to an individual’s keratoconus journey, optometrists can play a big role in the diagnosis and treatment of the condition. In fact, they’re often the first to detect when someone has keratoconus. While optometrists and ophthalmologists usually partner very closely when it comes to treating keratoconus, optometrists are the ones that fit patients with contact lenses and glasses, both before and after treatments such as corneal cross-linking. Optometrists also have a vast referral network, so if they diagnose or suspect keratoconus or notice irregularities in the shape of a patient’s cornea, an optometrist can refer to a local ophthalmologist. From there, the ophthalmologist can confirm the diagnosis and discuss available treatment options – including iLink.

All optometrists receive training in contact lens fitting, but some do undergo additional training to become contact lens specialists, meaning that they can fit their patients with more customized or complex specialty lens designs, such as scleral lenses and Rigid Gas Permeable (RGP) lenses. If your ophthalmologist recommends iLink FDA-approved cross-linking, or a different therapeutic or surgical treatment for your keratoconus, your optometrist will play a vital role in your post-operative care and in the ongoing management of your vision needs.

If an optometrist notices that a patient has an irregularly shaped cornea, they can perform further testing or a referral for testing elsewhere. Far too often those with keratoconus are misdiagnosed and sent on their way with an updated prescription allowing them to see better, however, the keratoconus often progresses since the underlying disease was not addressed with cross-linking. If an optometrist suspects or diagnoses keratoconus, they may be the first source of information about the progressive condition and available treatment options. Often, optometrists need to advocate for their patients with progressive keratoconus and recommend an ophthalmologist that is offering iLink FDA-approved cross-linking.

Baylen’s Firsthand Experience

Don’t just take our word for it – Baylen, a teenager from Nebraska, knows firsthand how important of a role his optometrist played in his keratoconus journey! Baylen suffered from debilitating headaches that impacted his schoolwork and participation in sports and extracurricular activities. Trying to figure out what was wrong, Baylen’s father brought him to their local Walmart for a routine eye exam. The optometrist noticed something was not right with his left cornea and referred the family to an ophthalmologist for more comprehensive testing. This testing led to Baylen’s progressive keratoconus diagnosis.

Following the recommendation from his ophthalmologist, Baylen received iLink FDA-approved cross-linking to slow or halt the progression of his condition. Since having the procedure, Baylen manages his keratoconus by wearing a custom specialty contact lens in his left eye that was fitted by an optometrist, and he is back to participating in the activities he enjoys.

Individual results may vary.

ODs Are Contact Lens Experts!

Contact lenses are a common part of an individual’s keratoconus journey whether you wear them to improve your vision or have to be fitted for a new pair after undergoing iLink FDA-approved cross-linking. They can range from soft contact lenses to RGPs or scleral lenses. Since optometrists provide fittings for contact lenses and glasses, they are experts in this area!

The Do’s and Don’ts of Contact Lenses

With an astounding 45 million people in the United States wearing contact lenses, the vast majority of users don’t use their lenses properly. While contact lenses are an effective way to improve vision, more than 99% of users have reported at least one risky eye care behavior that can lead to eye infections.

Dr. Gloria B. Chiu, OD, FAAO, FSLS, Associate Professor of Clinical Ophthalmology at the USC Roski Eye Institute, Department of Ophthalmology, Keck School of Medicine is one of Living with KC’s OD experts and is educating the community on the Do’s and Don’ts of contact lenses. One thing she wants people to know is how important it is to maintain proper contact lens hygiene. Read her blogs today to learn more about proper contact lens care.

What to Know About Scleral Lenses

If you have ever worn soft contact lenses and switch to scleral lenses, you will most likely notice that they are a bit different. A scleral lens is made of durable plastic that can transmit oxygen, it’s larger in diameter than other RGPs, and it is designed to cover the entire cornea, plus a portion of the white of the eye. 

Dr. Stephanie Woo, O.D., F.A.A.O., F.S.L.S., of the Contact Lens Institute of Nevada is an expert on scleral lenses and believes that they are a fantastic option for managing vision in patients with keratoconus. Dr. Woo shared her thoughts in a Living with KC blog series about scleral lenses, including how to care for these specific lenses, how long they will last, their benefits, and what sets them apart from other lenses. Read the full blog series here.

Make Your Appointment Today!

Don’t underestimate the importance of optometrists in an individual’s keratoconus journey! Regardless of where you are in your journey, it’s likely that you have been to an optometrist – especially if you are planning to receive contact lenses to help improve your vision.

Remember, if your optometrist diagnoses you with progressive keratoconus, make sure that the physician your optometrist is referring you to is an expert who is familiar with treating this progressive keratoconus and is performing the iLink FDA-approved cross-linking procedure. iLink is the only FDA-approved cross-linking proven to slow or halt the progression of keratoconus. With any medical procedure, side effects or infections can occur including ulcerative keratitis, a potentially serious eye infection. Discuss the risks and benefits of iLink with your doctor.

If you’re also interested in learning more about keratoconus, follow Living with KC on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for more information on keratoconus and FDA-approved treatments.

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