Macular degeneration, also called age-related macular degeneration (AMD), refers to the breakdown of a part of the eye’s retina called the macula.

The macula is a small area in the middle of the retina, which is at the back of your eye. It is responsible for our central vision. It also impacts how we see color and sharp details.

While there is no cure for AMD, some treatment and prevention methods have been effective for individual types (wet or dry). For example, optical coherence tomography (OCT) testing can detect macular degeneration earlier than other diagnostic tools.

Receiving an AMD diagnosis and getting prompt treatment can help improve your outlook.

We’ll talk about OCT testing and procedure, as well as what treatments are currently available for AMD.

Optical coherence tomography (OCT) is an advanced and highly sensitive test that uses light beams to create detailed images of your eye.

One key 2000 research article explains that OCT is like ultrasound, but with light. Light beams are directed into your eye’s tissues. That light is then “backreflected” or “backscattered” into the machine’s sensors. The light’s bouncing “echo” tells the machine the size and shape of the structures it touches.

OCT imaging can create a real-time, three-dimensional picture of your eye. This allows your ophthalmologist to spot damage to your macula more clearly than in other forms of testing.

According to this 2017 study, in addition to macular degeneration, OCT can also detect retinal detachments, glaucoma, and hemorrhages, among other conditions.

OCT testing is becoming a more common test for AMD. One 2021 study found that OCT imaging is accurate and useful for finding a wide range of conditions that affect the macula, including both wet and dry AMD.

An OCT is a noninvasive procedure done in your ophthalmologist’s office.

You will usually receive eye drops before an OCT test to dilate, or widen, your pupils. This makes it easier to capture clear images of your retina. Your eyes might be sensitive to light for a few hours after receiving these drops. So come prepared with sunglasses, and consider bringing a support person who can drive you home after your exam.

During the OCT test, you’ll sit in front of a machine with your chin resting on a support. OCT machines look like chunky desktop computers with some extra additions. Your ophthalmologist or a technician will be on the other side of the machine, guiding it on the monitor.

Keep your head still throughout the test and listen to any directions from your doctor. The machine will scan your eye with light beams. Nothing will touch your eye physically. You may find the test a bit bright and uncomfortable, but there should be no pain.

According to one 2022 overview, the scan generally takes around 5 to 10 minutes.

The OCT scan can detect a wide range of health problems in your eye’s structures.

Regarding macular degeneration, OCT can show:

  • abnormal blood vessels in your eyes
  • drusen (lipid or protein deposits under the macula)
  • thinning of your retina
  • bleeding or damage in the macula

Symptoms like those listed above may indicate AMD. After your OCT test, your doctor will review the results and explain them to you.

Early-stage AMD often has no noticeable symptoms. But an OCT test can catch AMD before symptoms begin. It’s important to take care of your eye health and stay on top of annual screenings whenever possible.

There is no cure for dry AMD, the most common type of macular degeneration. But wet AMD can be treated to preserve your vision. In some cases, vision loss due to wet AMD can be reversed.

According to the National Eye Institute (NEI), wet AMD currently has two treatment options:

  • Anti-VEGF medications. Anti-VEGF treatment can reduce the number of irregular blood vessels in your eye, stopping damage to the macula. First, a numbing agent is used to avoid discomfort. Then these medications are given by injection at the back of the eye cavity.
  • Photodynamic therapy (PDT). PDT uses lasers alongside a special light-sensitive medication to target and break down the blood vessels causing your vision loss. This treatment is used alongside anti-VEGF drugs. PDT is no longer a very common procedure.

While no cure currently exists for dry AMD, low vision aids can help you work around possible loss of vision.

The NEI has also performed age-related eye disease studies (AREDS) on nutritional supplements made of combinations of vitamins and minerals. These supplements have become known as the AREDS and AREDS2 formulas. The NEI suggests that taking AREDS or AREDS2 supplements can help reduce the risk that your dry AMD will enter its most severe stage.

Learn more about dry AMD management.

OCT and AMD treatment

In addition to making a diagnosis, OCT imaging is also used during AMD treatment, primarily in the treatment of wet AMD.

OCT scans are frequently used to check the progression of wet AMD. Your ophthalmologist may also use them to check the effectiveness of your treatment plan by comparing new scans to old ones.

An OCT test isn’t the only test for AMD. If your eye doctor suspects AMD, they might use the following to confirm a diagnosis:

  • Dilated eye exam. During a dilated eye exam, your pupils are widened with eye drops so your specialist can get a clear look at the inside of your eyes.
  • Visual acuity test. This is a test of how well you can see shapes and details from a certain distance. An optometrist, an ophthalmologist, or another vision specialist will ask you to read charts at various distances.
  • Amsler grid test. An Amsler grid is a tool you can use to check your eyesight. This test can help detect some of the symptoms shared by late-stage dry and wet AMD. When looking at the grid, some of the straight lines might appear to be wavy, or some parts of the grid may appear dark, blurry, or blank.
  • Fluorescein angiography. To perform fluorescein angiography, a medical professional injects a dye into your bloodstream through a vein in your arm. Your pupils are dilated using eye drops. Then your vision specialist takes pictures of the inside of your eye with a special camera. The fluorescent dye illuminates blood vessels, showing whether your eye is getting proper blood flow.

An optical coherence tomography (OCT) scan uses reflected light beams to create a detailed image of the inside of your eye. This test is used to check for a wide range of conditions that affect your retina and macula, including macular degeneration.

An OCT scan is noninvasive and only takes about 5 or 10 minutes. The images created by an OCT scan may show signs of AMD before you begin to have symptoms. A timely diagnosis can make a difference in your vision outcome, especially for wet AMD, by allowing you to start treatment sooner.

If you are concerned about your risk factors for AMD or are experiencing any troubling vision changes, talk with your eye doctor.