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.

A general practice doctor may refer someone to an ophthalmologist if they show symptoms of cataracts, eye infections, optic nerve problems, or other eye conditions.

In this article, we look at what ophthalmologists do, including the types of conditions that they treat, the procedures they perform, and when a person might see this specialist.

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An ophthalmologist may treat cataracts, eye infections, and optic nerve problems.

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.

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.

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Many ophthalmologists undertake surgical procedures on the eyes.

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
  • neoplasm (tumor, cyst, or foreign object) removal
  • 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

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

A person may also receive a referral to an ophthalmologist if they have conditions or factors that can increase the risk of eye conditions, such as:

A family doctor, pediatrician, emergency room doctor, or optometrist usually refers a person to an ophthalmologist.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommend that people have a full medical eye exam by the age of 40 years so that an ophthalmologist can create a baseline profile of their eye health.

Having an eye health baseline is important because it makes it easier for doctors to spot or track eye or vision changes, which are often subtle and difficult to detect. Even healthy people can suddenly experience severe eye conditions.

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Vision tests and eye exams are procedures an optometrist may perform.

Unlike ophthalmologists, optometrists and opticians are not medical doctors. However, members of all three distinct professions can, and frequently do, work in the same office or practice.

Optometrists are healthcare professionals who provide primary vision care. Optometrists hold a Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree, which requires the completion of 3–4 years of college and then 4 years of optometry school.

While the procedures that they perform vary between states and individual practices or clinics, most optometrists:

  • perform vision tests and eye exams
  • prescribe and dispense corrective lenses
  • help manage and monitor vision changes
  • detect signs of conditions that need subspecialist care, such as glaucoma and cataracts
  • prescribe medications to help manage certain conditions

Opticians are a type of healthcare technician. They are specially trained to help design, confirm, select, or fit corrective vision devices, including contact lenses and eyeglass lenses and frames. Opticians cannot diagnose or treat conditions and must follow the prescription and guidance of optometrists and ophthalmologists.

The other eye healthcare professionals who frequently work with ophthalmologists and optometrists include:

  • ophthalmic medical assistants: these technicians perform many different tests and assist ophthalmologists
  • ophthalmic technicians: these more highly trained or experienced medical assistants help ophthalmologists perform more complex tests and minor office surgeries
  • ophthalmic photographer: these professionals use special cameras and photography methods to create pictures of the eyes that help document eye conditions
  • ophthalmic registered nurse: these healthcare clinicians have specialized nursing training and can help ophthalmologists perform technical tasks, such as assisting with surgeries or injecting medications

Ophthalmologists are medical doctors who have undergone specialist training to diagnose and treat conditions involving the eyes and vision. They perform a wide range of medical and vision tests, minor office procedures, and some surgeries.

Some ophthalmologists specialize in a specific branch of ophthalmology that deals with particular procedures, parts of the eye, or groups of people.

A family doctor, pediatrician, or emergency room doctor usually refers a person to an ophthalmologist because of eye or vision problems. They refer people with symptoms and signs of conditions that need treating or monitoring.

Someone might also see an ophthalmologist if they have a higher risk of eye conditions or have health conditions that often lead to vision problems.

According to eye health authorities, most people should have an ophthalmologist perform a complete eye exam before the age of 40 years to establish a baseline profile of their eye health.