There’s only one thing worse than being in pain yourself – and that’s seeing a loved one suffering.
Two years ago my husband Harry developed ‘dry eye’, which might sound trivial but can be very painful and debilitating.
It started with mild discomfort – itching – in both eyes, then deteriorated over six months until Harry could keep his eyes open only until the early afternoon.
We were puzzled, but initially just assumed it was caused by smoke from our log fires. Then Harry saw his GP, who diagnosed dry eye.
This condition occurs when the eyes either don’t produce enough tears, or those they do produce evaporate too quickly.
Some 20 per cent of people in the UK suffer from dry eye, a figure which rises to 50 per cent in those over 65.
In a third of cases it’s caused by glands in the eyelids which secrete oils. The problem occurs when these oils are too thick and waxy – it’s usually an age thing.
As a result, the layer of water that coats the eyes evaporates too quickly, leaving them dry and inflamed.
Symptoms include a chronic stinging and a gritty, burning, and itching feeling. Sometimes the eye can appear red, but often, as in Harry’s case, there is no outward sign of discomfort.
Harry was prescribed Celluvisc eye drops, a substitute for tears. They helped, but not enough, and it meant that he couldn’t drive because he couldn’t keep his eyes open for long enough as they were so sore.
Blinking helped, because it soothed the eye, but he was blinking so much that it became dangerous. It was also embarrassing because people presumed that he was nodding off to sleep, so he had to keep explaining himself.
Harry’s condition eventually became unbearable. The GP just kept on prescribing Celluvisc until eventually – 18 months after his first symptoms – Harry was referred to an eye specialist, who diagnosed blepharitis, or inflamed eyelids.
Two-thirds of those with dry eye suffer from this. The treatment? Yet more drops.
Then someone at a lunch party mentioned they had used electric goggles for dry eyes to great effect. The goggles deliver steam directly into the eyes, melting the waxy oil in the eye to improve its natural oil secretions.
The Blephasteam goggles, as they are known, are the result of a happy coincidence.
Their inventor, the British eye specialist John Fuller, was visiting his brother Tom in New Zealand when he was persuaded to try a steam bath.
After ten minutes in the steam room, he noticed that while he didn’t have dry eyes, his vision was remarkably clear and his eyes felt very comfortable.
Tears are formed of three layers, one of which is oily. Mr Fuller says: ‘Like all oily substances, when heated this layer melts, creating better lubrication.’