The Link Between Arthritis and Eye Problems

Uveitis, Scleritis, and Dry Eye Syndrome

While arthritis is primarily a joint disease, several types of arthritis can have systemic effects—including some eye problems.

Systemic inflammatory conditions that have possible eye-related symptoms include:

In this article, you'll learn about three common eye conditions associated with systemic inflammatory disease.

Woman receiving an eye exam
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Dry Eye Syndrome

Dry eye syndrome, also called keratitis sicca, is the most common eye problem associated with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). It affects between 15% and 25% of people with RA.

Dry eyes are a primary symptom of Sjögren's syndrome. In Sjögren's, the immune system attacks the glands that produce moisture, including the tear glands.

Dry eyes are also common in scleroderma. This disease causes a substance called collagen to build up and harden connective tissues. The sclera (whites of your eyes) and the cornea (the front part) are made of collagen, so they're vulnerable to damage in scleroderma.

Immunosuppressant or immunomodulatory medications may help relieve symptoms of these conditions. Eye drops are a common treatment, as well. Some people opt for punctal plugs, which block tear drainage and keep eyes moist for longer.

Uveitis

The uvea is a part of the eye. It sits behind the cornea and sclera. It's made up of the iris (colored part) and structures called the choroid and ciliary body.

Uveitis is inflammation of the uvea that results in swelling and irritation. Anterior (front) uveitis is the most common type. It's associated with inflammation of the front part of the eye. If only the iris is involved, it may be called iritis.

Posterior (rear) uveitis affects the back part of the uvea, mostly the choroid. When the choroid alone is involved, it is called choroiditis. When the retina is also involved, it is called chorioretinitis.

Yet another type of uveitis is pars planitis, which is caused by inflammation of the narrowed area (pars plana) that sits between the iris and the choroid.

Symptoms of uveitis may include: 

  • Blurred vision
  • Eye pain
  • Dark spots that float
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Redness of the eye

Without treatment, it may result in blindness.

Oral corticosteroids or steroid eye drops are typically used to treat uveitis. With treatment, anterior uveitis typically goes away in a few days to weeks.

Posterior uveitis can last from months to years and may cause permanent damage despite treatment.

About 50% of people who develop anterior uveitis test positive for a protein called HLA-B27 that's associated with autoimmune disease.

Juvenile Arthritis Link

About 6% of uveitis cases are in children. And 80% of those cases are associated with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.

Scleritis

Scleritis is caused by inflammation of the sclera. Symptoms include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Severe eye pain and tenderness
  • Red patches in the white areas
  • Painful sensitivity to light
  • Excessive watering

Severe scleritis can cause thinning of the cornea, which can lead to partial blindness.

If left untreated, scleritis can lead to perforation of the eyeball, which causes blindness.

Related Eye Problems

People with scleritis can develop other eye problems, such as:

Conditions typically associated with scleritis include granulomatosis with polyangiitis (may be early-onset) and rheumatoid arthritis (usually with long-term, seropositive RA).

RA accounts for between 8% and 15% percent of scleritis cases.

Treatment of scleritis may involve:

Scleritis is often persistent, lasting for years.

Summary

Several chronic inflammatory diseases can have an impact on your eyes. Common eye conditions include dry eye syndrome, uveitis, and scleritis.

Symptoms and treatments vary depending on the condition.

If left untreated, uveitis and scleritis can cause blindness.

A Word From Verywell

If you have a type of arthritis and are experiencing vision abnormalities, tell your healthcare provider. They may send you to an ophthalmologist.

Delaying treatment can lead to blindness, so don't wait to get checked out. Early diagnosis and treatment may save your vision.

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Article Sources
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  4. American Academy of Ophthalmology: EyeSmart. Punctal plugs. Updated May 26, 2021.

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  8. National Institutes of Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Scleritis. Updated August 5, 2021.

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