Have you ever wondered why a bag of chips will swell almost to the point of bursting when you travel from a lower elevation? As the altitude increases the barometric pressure decreases. The difference between the high pressure inside the bag and the low pressure outside causes the bag to swell (and sometimes burst) to reach equilibrium with the surrounding environment.
The same concept applies to our biological tissue, including our eyes. Luckily there is not normally gas in our eyes, but there are procedures where air bubbles are injected into the eye, such as a vitrectomy: part of the vitreous humor of the eye is replaced with air so that a nearby site has the chance to heal. Common indications include a retinal detachment, macular hole or removal of scar tissue. It’s important to remain at the elevation your ophthalmologist or optometrist indicates because you don’t want your eye to suffer the same fate as a bag of chips!
This was one of many interesting things I learned while speaking with D. Paul Cook, OD and his wife and practice manager Karen Cook at Summit Eye Center on Main Street in beautiful Frisco, CO. The following is my interview with Dr. Cook, Karen Cook, and my preceptor Christine Ebert-Santos, MD, MPS.
How many years have you been practicing optometry in Frisco, CO?
I don’t recall the exact year, but I remember it was the year the Broncos lost the Superbowl.
I did a little research and this must have been either the 1986 or 1987 season, as the Broncos lost both of those Superbowls. Fortunately, those Superbowl losses were not a bad omen as Dr. Cook has successfully served the Frisco area every year since.
What conditions do you see commonly here at altitude?
One thing I see commonly here is recurrent corneal abrasions. The classic patient lives at a lower altitude and previously had a corneal abrasion. They received treatment but the abrasion site never completely heals. After arrival in the high country where it’s extremely dry that abrasion site dries up and becomes inflamed.
Usually what I do is give a bandage contact lens to cover up that recurrent corneal abrasion, which usually works, but if it’s extremely painful, we can use amniotic membrane, which is expensive. But it is effective.
The cornea is the outermost layer of the eye (if you don’t count the tear film). A corneal abrasion occurs when any foreign object scrapes the corneal surface. Symptoms include a foreign body sensation, pain, clear discharge, blurry vision and sensitivity to light. A corneal abrasion needs a healthy, moist environment in order to heal. You can see how the dryness that comes along with altitude could lead to a recurrent corneal abrasion.
I also see a fair amount of snow blindness, usually in the spring though.
I suppose it has to do with the sun being higher in the sky and people being out and about hiking. When people are out skiing in the cold winter they wear their goggles, but if it’s spring time and somebody’s hiking they might forget their glasses.
Snow blindness is only one potential cause of a disease called photokeratitis. Other causes are staring at the sun, looking at an arc welder, or catching too many refracted UV rays from surfaces such as sun, water, ice and snow. The pathophysiology for each disease is the same: too many UV rays are focused onto the cornea at one time which causes damage. Symptoms include pain, redness, blurriness, sensitivity to bright light, headache, and occasionally temporary vision loss. Treatment for photokeratitis caused by snow blindness is supportive, but the most important thing is resting your eyes. Try to get into a dark room and avoid anything that makes your eyes uncomfortable. In a few days your cornea should heal.
Prevention is straightforward: wear sunglasses or ski goggles with adequate sun protection.
Are cataracts a more common condition at altitude?
Oh yes, because of sun exposure and our aging population here. The people of Summit County are so active, which increases their exposure to the damaging rays of the sun. We’re also treating cataracts so much sooner than we used to, so that’s part of what makes it more common.
Do you have any recommendations for healthy aging at altitude as it relates to the eyes?
Karen: Getting your annual eye exam. We always tell patients there are a lot of things we can do to preserve your vision, there’s almost nothing we can do to give it back to you.
So if you live in Frisco, CO and don’t have an optometrist, make sure to see Dr. Paul Cook!
Is blurry vision a common malady in patients that have recently received a LASIK procedure and then ascended to higher elevations?
I have not seen that with LASIK. About 30 years ago though there was a procedure called Radial Keratotomy (RK) that involved a surgeon making radial cuts on the cornea in order to correct nearsightedness. Those patients used to require one pair of glasses for where they lived at lower elevation and one pair of glasses at higher elevation. It’s not a procedure commonly done nowadays but patients that had RK roughly 30 years ago may have that problem.
LASIK stands for Laser Assisted In Situ Keratomileusis. It essentially means that the surgeon will use a laser to reshape the cornea so that the light refracting through it will be appropriately concentrated on the retina. LASIK is faster, cheaper, safer and more effective than RK. It has largely usurped RK for surgical treatment of nearsightedness or farsightedness.
What are some interesting cases you have seen over your years of practice?
I treated a patient that traveled from the Midwest and had a genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa. Clinically that means the patient had limited peripheral vision at baseline. He and his wife decided to hike the Colorado Trail. Unfortunately during the hike he developed blurred vision and ended up coming into my office. Turns out he had macular edema and I referred him to an ophthalmologist down in Denver because the altitude was probably the cause of his macular swelling. I called him a few weeks later and his vision had returned to normal.
Another patient came into the office because his wife had noticed growths on his iris that turned out to be nevi (colloquially known as moles when they’re on the skin). So I dilated his eyes and noticed growths on his retina. I referred him down to oncology in Denver for a biopsy and it turned out to be melanoma. I think they’re closely monitoring that melanoma at this point. It’s uncommon to see cancers of the eye but I see them once every few years.
For my last question, do you have any general recommendations for residents or visitors?
Wear sunglasses, eat your vegetables, eat your fish at least two times per week, keep your cholesterol in check, keep your sugars in check, take breaks from looking at the computer, don’t sleep in your contacts, and see your optometrist once per year.
Seth Selby is a second-year physician assistant student at Des Moines University. He was raised in Eaton, CO and attended Colorado State University with a bachelor’s degree in Health and Exercise Science. Prior to PA school, Seth worked for 3 years as a Cardiovascular Technician at Boulder Community Hospital. In his spare time Seth loves backpacking, hunting, fishing, skiing and astronomy.