The most common eye disease caused by high blood pressure is known as hypertensive retinopathy—here’s a closer look.
Leslie Pepper,Jul 22, 2020 • 3 min read
You likely already know that hypertension — or high blood pressure, as it’s commonly called — can raise your risk of a heart attack. But did you know it can also lead to eye disease?
Here’s why: High blood pressure is when the force of blood pushing against the blood vessel walls is stronger than it should be. Over time, this can trigger the blood vessels to thicken, which can restrict blood from reaching certain areas of the body, including the heart, the brain, the kidneys — and yes, the eyes.
What happens when blood vessels thicken in the eye?
When blood pressure gets too high over a period of time, the small blood vessels in the retina can start to narrow. This decreases the amount of blood flowing into the retina, hindering its function. This condition is called hypertensive retinopathy (HR).
What are the symptoms of hypertensive retinopathy?
Most people with mild to moderate hypertensive retinopathy have no idea they even have eye damage. Eventually, however, if left untreated, blood can leak into the retina, causing reduced vision, swelling of the retina and optic nerve, and bursting of a blood vessel or double vision, says Raj Maturi, MD, clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Many cases are caught during a routine eye exam. An ophthalmologist will examine your retina and may take photographs of the retina and optic nerve. “Small areas where blood flow is cut-off show up as white blobs, called cotton wool spots, on the retinal surface,” says Dr. Maturi.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends all healthy adults get a baseline eye exam by age 40 and have their eyes checked every year or two at age 65 or older to catch symptoms early.
How is hypertensive retinopathy treated?
For most mild and moderate cases, the best way to treat hypertensive retinopathy is to adequately control your blood pressure. This includes:
Watch your diet. The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy foods. It also emphasizes whole grains, fish, poultry, and nuts, while reducing red meats, sweets, and sugared beverages.
Lay off the salt shaker. The U.S. recommended dietary allowance of sodium is 2,300 milligrams.
Move your body. Physical activity has a double-whammy effect, by both lowering your blood pressure and helping to keep your weight down.
Quit smoking. If you need help, call 800-QUIT-NOW or go to smokefree.gov for support.
Speak to your doctor. If lifestyle changes don’t do the trick, your doctor may prescribe blood pressure medication. (To get the best price, make sure to check Blink Health.)
For more severe cases, hospital admission may be necessary. “When hypertensive retinopathy sets in, many complications can develop such as complete occlusion of the vein or the artery,” says Dr. Maturi. “There can be tremendous vision loss when this happens.”