Glaucoma is a condition that causes damage to the eye’s optic nerve, which slowly worsens over time, and is typically associated with buildup of pressure. Glaucoma tends to be inherited and doesn’t usually show up until later in life. The increased pressure, known as intraocular pressure, damages the optic nerve which transmits images to the brain. If damage to the optic nerve continues, it will eventually cause permanent blindness. Without treatment, glaucoma can cause total permanent blindness within a few years. Since people with glaucoma usually have no early symptoms, it’s important to see your eye doctor on a regular basis so it can be diagnosed and treated before any long term vision loss occurs.
Risk factors and causes
If you are over the age of 40 and have a family history of glaucoma, you should have a complete eye exam every one to two years. Those with other health conditions such as diabetes or those at risk for other eye diseases should visit the eye doctor more frequently. Glaucoma is caused by the buildup of pressure in the eye that prevents the eye fluid from circulating normally. When the fluid builds up because of the channel blockage, glaucoma is likely the cause.
No one knows exactly what causes ocular pressure to build up however there are a few risk factors. You are at an increased risk for glaucoma if you are of African American, Irish, Japanese, Hispanic, Russian, or Scandinavian descent. Your risk also increases if you already have poor vision, suffer from diabetes, take certain steroid medications, or you are over the age of 40.
Glaucoma can also be caused by a blunt injury or chemical exposure to the eye, blockage of blood vessels in the eye, inflammatory conditions of the eye, severe eye infection, or a corrective eye surgery for another condition. Though it usually occurs in both eyes, it can be affect each eye to a different extent.
Most people experience zero to few early symptoms of glaucoma. The first sign is usually the loss of the side vision which can go unnoticed until later in the disease. Occasionally, the pressure can rise to high levels causing eye pain, blurred vision, headache, or the appearance of halos around lights. If you experience any of these symptoms, you should seek medical attention right away. Early detection can only happen when you complete an eye exam every couple of years.
Glaucoma is diagnosed with vision exams and pupil dilation. The eye exam will focus on the optical nerve, which has a certain appearance when glaucoma is present. Periodic pictures of the optic nerve can also be helpful to follow changes over time, as the optical nerve’s appearance will continue to change as the disease progresses. The doctor will also perform a tonometry test to check for eye pressure, as well as a visual field test if necessary to determine if there’s any loss of peripheral vision. The glaucoma tests are painless and take very little time.
There are two main types of glaucoma:
- Open angle glaucoma, also known as wide angle glaucoma, is the most common type. The structures of the eye appear normal but the fluid in the eye isn’t properly flowing and draining throughout the eye.
- Angle closure glaucoma, also known as acute or chronic narrow angle glaucoma, is the least common type of glaucoma. This type generally causes a sudden build up pressure in the eye with poor drainage due to the narrow angle between the iris and the cornea.
Glaucoma treatment usually includes prescription eye drops and microsurgery or laser surgery. The eye drops will either reduce the formation of fluid or increase the fluids outflow. Side effects may include allergies, redness of the eyes, blurred vision, and irritation. Some drugs may affect the heart and lungs so be sure tell your doctor about any conditions, allergies, or medications.
Laser surgery slightly increases the outflow of fluid from the eye or reduced laminate fluid blockage. Microsurgery creates a new channel to drain the fluid and reduce the pressure that causes glaucoma. It’s not uncommon for this type of surgery to fail, re-progression of symptoms will require more surgery in the future. Infant, or congenital, glaucoma is treated with surgery most often because the cause comes from an extremely distorted drainage system.
Though glaucoma cannot be prevented, it can be diagnosed and treated early to help control it. At this time, vision loss from glaucoma cannot be restored; however, many patients are able to maintain current vision levels, as long as they follow their treatment plan accordingly.
Protect your eyes with appropriate sunglasses and follow your treatment plan. See your eye doctor annually, or more regularly, as recommended. Make sure to use proper lighting indoors to prevent eye strain and always use eye protection when performing dangerous tasks (such as saw work, sanding, yard work, etc.)
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