Glaucoma is a leading cause of blindness and visual impairment in the United States, especially in older individuals. Loss of sight is preventable by early detection and treatment.
Glaucoma actually refers to a group of diseases that cause damage to the optic nerve (hyperlink to picture of eye) caused by increased pressure within the eye. The optic nerve carries information from the eye to the brain and damage to it results in loss of vision.
Most people do not experience any symptoms and may not be aware that they have the disease. Thus, the need for routine check-ups especially as we age.
Most cases of glaucoma are genetic and occur in otherwise healthy eyes (primary open-angle glaucoma). There are many causes of secondary glaucoma including injury, inflammatory conditions, and as a complication of diabetes and other vascular problems of the eye.
Symptoms may include sudden eye pain, headache, blurred vision and the appearance of halos around lights. Unless treated quickly, blindness can result.
While there are no surefire ways to prevent glaucoma from developing, regular screenings and early detection are the best forms of protection against the harmful damage that the disease can cause. While anyone can develop glaucoma, some people are at a higher risk for developing disease. These people may include those who:
- Are over the age of 60
- African Americans over the age of 40
- Have a family history of glaucoma
- Have poor vision
- Have diabetes
Patients should have a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once every two years, especially if they have a higher risk of developing glaucoma. Older patients may be encouraged to be tested more frequently.
While some patients may experience symptoms from glaucoma as the disease progresses, others do not learn they have the condition until they undergo a routine eye exam. There are several different exams performed to diagnose glaucoma, including a tonometry to measure the pressure inside the eye and visual field testing to measure peripheral vision. Other tests include pachymetry to measure the thickness of the cornea, photography and other imaging techniques of the optic nerves for closer evaluation by the doctor, and a thorough eye exam to determine any underlying causes of glaucoma or other diseases.
Treatment for Glaucoma
Once glaucoma has been diagnosed, treatment should begin as soon as possible to help minimize the risk of permanent vision loss. There is no cure for glaucoma, so treatment focuses on relieving symptoms and preventing further damage from occurring. Most cases of glaucoma can be treated with eye drops, laser or microsurgery. The best treatment for your individual case depends on the type and severity of the disease, and can be discussed with your doctor.
- Eye drops are used to reduce fluid production in the front of the eye or to help drain excess fluid. They are safe and effective; most are used once or twice daily. Side effects are uncommon and not serious. Patients should tell their doctor about any allergies they have to minimize the risk of side effects.
- Laser surgery for glaucoma aims to increase the outflow of fluid from the eye (laser trabeculoplasty) in open-angle glaucoma or eliminate fluid blockages (iridotomy) in closed-angle glaucoma.
- Microsurgery involves a surgical procedure called a trabeculectomy, which creates a new channel to drain fluid from the eye and reduce the pressure that causes glaucoma. Surgery is often performed after medication and laser procedures have failed.