Loose Women’s Jackie Brambles: I Wasn’t Expecting Pregnancy To Affect My Eyesight

From the Mail Online – 9 Nov.2010

By Richard Barber

When ITV’s Loose Women host Jackie Brambles became pregnant at 39, she fully expected the morning sickness, swollen ankles and fatigue. What she didn’t expect, however, was for her eyes to be affected.

‘My eyesight wasn’t great anyway – I got glasses for short-sightedness when I was 17 and have been wearing contacts since my 20s. But as soon as I was pregnant with my first child, Stanley, I started to have problems,’ says Jackie, who is now 43 and living in Glasgow.

‘When I tried to put my contact lenses in, it felt as though my eyes were rejecting them. And the more I tried, the harder it got. My eyes felt dry and gritty all the time.’ Nor did the trouble ease when the lenses were in.

‘I’d never had any problems before, but wearing them was really uncomfortable,’ she adds. ‘My eyes were dry, and they seemed to become slightly inflamed.’ As the months passed, Jackie, a former Radio 1 DJ and GMTV reporter, relied increasingly on her glasses.

‘Unless I was going somewhere smart or appearing on television, I just couldn’t wear my contacts – they were too much trouble. And to top it all, I was convinced my eyesight was deteriorating, too. I always seemed to be screwing up my eyes to focus properly.’

These kinds of eyesight problems during pregnancy are far more common than many women might think. In fact, as Moin Mohamed, an ophthalmic surgeon at St Thomas’ Hospital, London, explains: ‘During pregnancy, your cornea swells up, altering your eyesight prescription.’

The cornea is the clear, dome-shaped part on the front of the eye. Its job is to refract images to the back of the eye, where they are then passed on to the brain. If the cornea is misshapen, this affects the way images are focused on the back of the eye, causing problems such as short or long sight. Despite pregnancy-related problems being quite common, there’s surprisingly little research in this area, says Mr Mohamed.

The change in progesterone levels – a hormone that plays a vital role during pregnancy – may have some sort of effect on a woman’s vision, says Mr Mohamed. ‘Extra progesterone is needed to soften up collagen and cartilage elsewhere in the body, in the pubic bone, for example, to help the baby’s progress down the birth canal.

‘The theory goes that this extra progesterone affects the collagen in the cornea. Certainly, the cornea becomes more curved during pregnancy, which can make women more short-sighted as a result.’

The cornea will also start to feel quite dry, making contacts uncomfortable. This is as a result of lack of moisture.

‘Your eyes are always covered by a thin layer of liquid known as a tear film,’ says Mr Mohamed. ‘This is important for lubricating the eye, protecting against infection and helping to stabilise vision.

‘But this is regulated by a system known as the lacrimal function unit, which is affected by the fluctuating hormone levels associated with pregnancy and breastfeeding. ‘This dry feeling may be further exacerbated by the fact that pregnant or breastfeeding women may well be woken during the night, a time when eyes naturally dry out.’ Mr Mohamed recommends the use of drops to moisturise the eyes. Yet another possible problem during this time is a loss of something known as accommodation. ‘This is the ability to change the position of focus from near to distant at will. We’re not sure why, but there is some evidence that the natural lens inside the eye loses some of its elasticity,’ he says.

However, these changes are usually temporary which is why women should resist the temptation to have their eyes tested during pregnancy. When the hormones return to normal, vision and ability to focus also normalise.

But in up to 10 per cent of cases this doesn’t happen – and Jackie was one of this unlucky minority. Mr Mohamed says this can be related to late motherhood, pointing out that ‘women are biologically designed to have babies in their twenties’. Jackie, who married her second husband, financial services consultant David Tod, in 2005, had her first child when she was 39. Her daughter Florence was born 11 months later, shortly after Jackie’s 40th birthday.

‘Jackie had an underlying problem with her eyesight, which was why she’d been wearing contact lenses in the first place,’ says Mr Mohamed. ‘This would have been exacerbated by two relatively late pregnancies in quick succession.

‘Also, the typical age for people to acquire their first pair of reading glasses is 42 or 43, as by that stage the eye has lost a significant amount of its ability to easily change focus. So as Jackie was nearing that age, her sight would have been deteriorating even further as a result.’

But at the time, Jackie was so manic being a new mum that she simply put up with it. ‘I had an eye test early on in my first pregnancy, which actually confirmed the contact lens prescription was correct. However, things certainly never improved. If anything, they got worse. ‘But as I had one, then two, small babies to think about, I didn’t do anything about it. By then, I was fine wearing glasses.’

Then, by chance, she was watching This Morning when presenter Phillip Schofield underwent Laser Eye Surgery at the London Vision Clinic.

‘I’d toyed with the idea of laser surgery before – but I just didn’t like the idea of having something like that done to my eyes,’ says Jackie. Also, because of an astigmatism (an irregularity in the curvature of the cornea) in her left eye, she was convinced that she wouldn’t be a suitable candidate for surgery. ‘But there was no basis in fact for that, and I wonder now whether I was using it as an excuse,’ she says.

Phillip’s procedure went so well and looked so straightforward that she decided to contact the surgeon who did his treatment – Dan Reinstein, who is professor of Ophthalmology at Cornell University in New York. He explained how her late pregnancies and already poor eyesight had contributed to deteriorating vision. She underwent a number of different eye tests including a pressure test to exclude glaucoma, a condition where fluid builds up in the eye and can lead to blindness. A month later, in September, Jackie went back for the treatment.

‘I was a bit scared prior to having it done,’ she says, ‘but I think that’s completely normal. Your eyes are, after all, one of the senses people most fear losing.’

Indeed, anyone undergoing Laser Eye Surgery needs to appreciate there is the potential for complications, such as dry eyes, double vision, light sensitivity, and, much more rare, vision loss, which is why it’s important to choose a surgeon with expertise and considerable experience.

‘I took a couple of painkilling tablets 20 minutes before surgery,’ adds Jackie, ‘and I was also offered chocolate – which is important to help reduce your levels of stress hormones and given an Indian head massage before surgery.’

During the procedure, a laser is used to make a flap in each cornea. These are peeled back to reveal the middle section, and another laser is then used to correct the abnormality in its shape. Each flap was folded back into place, healing naturally within three hours.

‘The treatment itself lasted only ten minutes, five on each eye, as I clutched a teddy bear I’d been handed – for reassurance, I suppose!’ says Jackie.

After the procedure, Jackie had to lie down, keeping her eyes closed for three hours. Every 15 minutes, she had to insert drops to help prevent infection. ‘Initially, my eyes felt slightly dry and warm, as though I’d had a late night or was suffering from jet-lag. But I had no pain,’ says Jackie.

She wore sunglasses for the first 24 hours as the eyes healed. She was also encouraged initially to have baths rather than showers, and to avoid dusty locations. But she has no doubt it was worth it. Just after the procedure itself, Professor Reinstein asked her to read from a sheet of paper.

‘He handed it to me and I read it. Then I suddenly realised what I’d just done. I’d read the paper without putting my glasses on.’

Find out more about Laser Eye Surgery at the London Vision Clinic