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What Is an Optometrist?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 23, 2021

An optometrist is a healthcare professional who provides primary vision care. They aren’t medical doctors but they are licensed to practice optometry, which includes giving eye exams, writing prescriptions for contact lenses and glasses, finding abnormalities in the eye, and treating certain eye diseases

What Does an Optometrist Do?

An optometrist specializes in primary eye care, which includes:

Optometrist Education and Training

Optometrists complete four years of optometry school and earn a doctor of optometry (OD) degree. The training involves several steps:

  1. Attend college and earn a bachelor's degree in science or pre-med
  2. Pass the Optometry Admission Test (OAT) and enter a four-year doctor of optometry program
  3. Earn a doctoral degree (OD), then take the National Board of Examiners in Optometry (NBEO) exams
  4. Apply and secure a license to practice optometry 

Once they are licensed, an optometrist may choose to complete a specialty fellowship or delve into additional clinical training. 

What Conditions Does an Optometrist Treat?

Optometrists can't perform eye surgery but can prescribe medications and treat eye diseases. They can detect common eye abnormalities and diseases that can lead to permanent vision loss or even blindness. These include: 

  • Glaucoma, a disease that damages the optic nerve
  • Age-related macular degeneration, a condition where the light-sensitive tissue in your eyes breaks down
  • Cataracts, which cloud the lens of your eye and lead to vision loss 
  • Diabetic retinopathy, or damage to the blood vessels in the back of the eye related to diabetes

Reasons to See an Optometrist

It's important to take care of your eyes, even if you don't wear glasses or contact lenses. Regular exams help detect eye diseases early and preserve your vision. See an optometrist if you: 

  • Wear corrective lenses, or think you need glasses or contacts
  • Have a chronic disease like diabetes, which has a greater risk of eye disease
  • Have a family history of vision loss or eye disease 
  • Take prescription medications that affect your eyes

If you have any of the following symptoms, make an appointment as soon as possible:

  • Eye pain
  • Blurred vision or double vision 
  • Circles that look like halos around lights 
  • Red, irritated eyes
  • Floaters — specks that float before your eyes 
  • Flashes of light 

An optometrist may refer you to an ophthalmologist, a medical doctor specializing in vision care, for further treatment or eye surgery, if needed. 

What to Expect at the Optometrist

An optometrist will ask about your medical history and any vision problems you're having. They will check your vision and ensure your eyes are functioning properly. 

Cover Test

This determines how well your eyes work together. You'll focus on a small target a specific distance away while your optometrist covers and uncovers each eye to observe how your eyes move. 

Eye Muscle Movement Test 

This assessment determines your eye alignment and requires you to follow a target, like a pen or a fingertip, as it moves in different directions. 

Pupil Reactions 

The pupils, or the black center of your eye, are always adjusting to different amounts of light. Your optometrist will watch how your pupils adjust, as well as examining the white of your eyes and position of your eyelids. 

Visual Acuity/Refraction Test 

This involves covering one eye and reading different lines of an eye chart, from the largest letters at the top to the smallest row at the bottom.

This will determine whether or not you need corrective lenses. If you do, you'll have a refraction test, which allows your optometrist to fine-tune your prescription by flipping back and forth between different lenses. 

Slit Lamp Exam

This involves a device that lights up and enlarges the front of your eye to reveal your cornea, iris, lens, and back of your eyes. 

Retinal Exam (O phthalmoscopy

A tool called an ophthalmoscope reveals the back of your eyes, including the retina, blood vessels, your optic nerve, and the fluid in the back of your eyes.

An optometrist will also inspect the fluid pressure in your eyes for any signs of glaucoma, measure the thickness of your corneas, and check your peripheral vision. 

Wear your glasses or contact lenses to the appointment to ensure you have a prescription that works for you. If your eyes are dilated during the exam, bring a pair of sunglasses. Bright sun or indoor lights may be uncomfortable or painful for a few hours until the drops wear off.  

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES: 

American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus: "Difference between an Ophthalmologist, Optometrist, and Optician." 

American Optometric Association: "Studying Optometry." 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): "Vision Health Initiative (VHI)." 

Cleveland Clinic: "Optometrist or Ophthalmologist: Which Is Best for Your Eye Care?"

Mayo Clinic: "Eye exam." 

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