As an expert on vision and eye health, an optometrist takes care of one of the body's five senses: sight. You might leave your appointment with a new pair of contact lenses, some stylish glasses, or medications to treat an eye condition. It's likely you'll have to squint at letters on a screen, follow a pen with your eyes, or have a puff of air blown into each eye, but don't worry — it won't be painful.

What is an optometrist?

An optometrist is a Doctor of Optometry (O.D.). That's different from an ophthalmologist, which is a medical doctor who specializes in eye health. An optometrist does not have a medical degree, so you won't find one in a hospital diagnosing patients. But an optometrist may look after your eyes before and after you have surgery done by an ophthalmologist.

Optometrists are like primary care providers, but for the eye. If you're having trouble seeing or have eye discomfort, you might go first to an optometrist. O.D.s are trained to find and treat eye and vision injuries, diseases, and disorders.

Reasons to see an optometrist

Most people visit optometrists if they can't see well. There are many common symptoms that an optometrist can help assess. They might be normal, or they might be signs of a serious condition.

  • Blurry vision
  • Spots or "floaters" in line of vision
  • Eye infection or discomfort
  • Dry eye
  • Light sensitivity
  • Dark areas in center of vision

An optometrist helps diagnose and treat conditions that present with these symptoms. Among these many conditions are:

  • Astigmatism
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Dry eye
  • Diabetic retinopathy
  • Cataracts
  • Macular degeneration

If you have any of these symptoms, don't worry. Your optometrist can help figure out what's going on, and if necessary, provide a treatment plan to help cure or manage the condition.

What does an optometrist do?

During a routine eye exam, an optometrist will do a series of tests. These measure your eye pressure, how well you see close-up and at a distance, your ability to see color, the strength of your eye muscles, your retina health, and the blood vessels in the eye. Some of the most common tests are:

  • Eye muscle test: Following an object with your eye.
  • Visual acuity test: Reading letters on a screen.
  • Refraction assessment: Choosing the clearest image as lenses are changed.
  • Visual field test: Saying when an object comes into your field of vision, one eye at a time.
  • Color vision testing: Picking out patterns in dot images.
  • Retinal examination: Looking into your eye after your pupils have been dilated with drops.
  • Glaucoma screening: A puff of air in the eye or direct contact on the eye to determine pressure.

Using this information, your optometrist can give you a prescription for contact lenses or eyeglasses to help you see better. Medications for conditions such as dry eye are also possible. You might have to go through further testing if anything looks unusual.

Certification

An optometrist must complete a Doctor of Optometry program, which is a four-year degree. Three years of college courses, with an emphasis on sciences, are required to get into optometry school, but most optometrists have a full undergraduate degree. The O.D. program includes classroom work and hands-on experience in a clinic.

To get a state license, optometrists must have an O.D. and pass an exam put on by the National Board of Examiners in Optometry. In some states, clinical exams are also required. Advanced certification for optometrists is available through the American Board of Optometry, but not all O.D.s choose this certification.

You can visit the website of your state's board of optometry to check your O.D.'s license. For example, the California Board of Optometry has a searchable database where you can look up your optometrist by name.

Referral and research

You might not need a referral from your primary care physician to see an optometrist. You should still take the time to research your options for eye health care and follow these tips on choosing a medical specialist.

Questions to ask at your first meeting

Make a list ahead of time of all your eye health questions. If you suspect you have an eye disease, you may want to know about possible medical treatments. Even if you are seeing an O.D. for a routine eye exam, you should bring up any concerns you have about your vision. Some questions you might want to ask when seeing an optometrist are:

  • What is causing my vision problems?
  • How can I improve my eye health?
  • If you are unable to treat my condition, will you refer me to a different medical specialist?
  • Do you recommend follow-up visits to monitor my eye health?
  • Is there medical treatment, such as medication or surgery, that will help my eyesight?

Your eye health is an important part of your overall health care. The American Optometric Association recommends patients see their optometrist once a year.