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Christie Brinkley’s routine eye exam caught condition that could have led to vision loss

The procedure was a "piece of cake," she shared on Instagram.
"Chicago" 25th Anniversary On Broadway
Christie Brinkley poses at the 25th Anniversary of "Chicago" on Broadway at The Ambassador Theater on November 16, 2021 in New York City.Bruce Glikas / WireImage

Christie Brinkley went in for a routine eye exam and ended up discovering that she has a type of glaucoma — one that required surgery to treat.

"I just discovered that I have something called Acute Angle Closure," Brinkley wrote on Instagram. "I only found out because I included an eye exam as part of my yearly physical check up and my brilliant ophthalmologist spotted this problem."

Brinkley added that doctors can "fix it by brace yourselves, drilling a hole thru your eye! It’s not as gruesome as it sounds. In fact I just had it done in this photo, piece of cake."

If left untreated "it could have resulted in vision loss," Brinkley wrote alongside a photo of herself in what appears to be the ophthalmologist's office. "I’m very grateful!"

Glaucoma is an umbrella term for a group of eye conditions that result from damage to the optic nerve, typically due to an increase in pressure thanks to a buildup of fluid in the eye, Dr. Lora Rabin Dagi Glass, assistant professor of ophthalmology at Columbia University Medical Center, told TODAY.

There are two main forms of glaucoma: the more common open angle form and the less common closed angle form, Dr. Joseph Panarelli, an ophthalmologist at NYU Langone who specializes in managing glaucoma, told TODAY.

The open angle form causes "progressive vision loss over a period of years and even decades," he said. But "acute angle closure glaucoma is a more dramatic form of glaucoma where patients can lose a significant amount of vision in a period of hours." 

Related: ‘My eye doctor saved my life’: Woman learns she has diabetes after an eye exam

People may develop conditions that predispose them to acute angle glaucoma without actually having glaucoma yet, Glass said. In those cases, there are certain situations that might trigger additional pressure in the iris that leads to acute angle closure, like taking medications that might dilate your pupils, Panarelli said, or being in a dark movie theater, Glass added.

Typically, people with acute angle closure have very noticeable symptoms such as severe eye pain, headaches, nausea and vomiting, Glass said. "They go to the emergency room at 2 in the morning if this happens, you know. They go anytime it strikes because it's horrible." 

"I've seen people misdiagnosed with migraines where they're looking to make sure they're not having a brain bleed," Panarelli said. "People sometimes can miss the fact that it's all emanating from the eye."

The main goal for treatment is to "lower the eye pressure to a normal range as quickly and efficiently as possible to maintain the health of the optic nerve during this acute crisis," Glass said. That might involve eye drops or other medications that can relieve pressure.

But those won't solve the underlying anatomical issue, which is where a treatment like the one Brinkley described comes in. The actual term for the procedure is a peripheral laser iridotomy and, in some cases, it might be done preventively, Panarelli said.

The procedure involves making a very precise hole in the iris to relieve the pressure in the eye. "We basically put a small hole or opening into the iris to allow fluid that is trapped behind the iris to come forward," Panarelli explained. "So the purpose of the hole really is to calibrate the pressure in the two chambers of the eye."

Although it may seem intense (and the phrase "drilling a hole" through your eye doesn't help with that), Glass emphasized that the procedure is really "no big deal" and "not something scary." It can be done with the chin and forehead rest that's used in a regular eye exam and takes about five minutes, plus follow-up to make sure the hole stays open. Panarelli said it's done frequently on a preventive basis in those who are predisposed to develop acute angle closure.

Brinkley ended her post with a reminder to her followers to schedule their routine eye exams, which many people have skipped those check-ups during the COVID-19 pandemic. Panarelli pointed out that routine eye exams don’t always include a gonioscopy, which is a specialized test that examines the eye’s drainage angle, the American Academy of Ophthalmology explains. Depending on your specific risk factors for eye disease, your doctor may recommend you get this screening.