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Physicians often approach the eye examination with some degree of apprehension. Eye complaints comprise up to 10 percent of Emergency Department visits. A systematic approach to the eye examination can alleviate any discomfort and provide the basis for an accurate diagnosis and treatment. The most common ophthalmologic problems that present to an Emergency Department are injuries, inflammation, infections, and visual disturbances.


A careful history will help to guide the differential diagnosis and the physical examination. It must include a history of the presenting complaint, the mechanism of any injury, exposures to chemicals or infectious agents, baseline visual acuity, known ophthalmologic problems, baseline medical problems, current medications, and any known allergies. The eye examination progresses from the outside and works inward, beginning with the visual acuity to assess the function of the eye. It is important to routinely inspect all anatomic structures of the eye regardless of the presenting eye complaint. Secondary problems, such as corneal lesions associated with conjunctivitis, may be missed if a complete examination is not performed on all patients.


The bony orbit is pyramidal in shape and surrounds the eyeball and its associated neurovascular structures. The blood supply to the structures of the orbit originates from the ophthalmic artery. The anatomy of the eyeball and its surrounding soft tissue structures is demonstrated in Figure 132-1. A detailed discussion of the complex anatomy of the eye is beyond the scope of this chapter. The anatomy relevant to the eye examination will be discussed throughout this chapter.

Figure 132-1
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Anatomy of the eye and its surrounding soft tissues. A. Surface anatomy. B. Midsagittal section through the eyeball.


Visual acuity is referred to as the vital sign of the eyes. It provides a means for the functional assessment of this delicate sensory apparatus. Documentation of the visual acuity is essential when approaching a patient with eye complaints. Assess the patient’s visual acuity as soon as possible, preferably as part of the triage assessment. Test and document the patient’s visual acuity before the physical examination begins. There are few exceptions to this rule. Chemical exposures to the eye require irrigation without delay to avoid potential irreversible visual loss. Eye irrigation after a chemical exposure must precede visual acuity testing. Failure to document visual acuity is a common omission and may have medicolegal ramifications.


Test and document the visual acuity with the respective annotation to the right eye (OD), the left eye (OS), and both eyes (OU). Test the problematic eye first. Completely cover the eye not being tested. Light shining into the opposite eye may adversely affect the results of visual acuity testing. A list of commonly used abbreviations in the measurement of visual acuity is listed in Table 132-1. Inquire as to the patient’s baseline visual acuity and whether they wear corrective lenses for reference. Test the ...

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