Glaucoma is a degenerative disease of the eye that can cause permanent damage to the optic nerve, resulting in gradual vision loss and eventual blindness. Simply defined, glaucoma is the loss of peripheral vision due to pressure on the eye. Statistics show that it affects one in 50 adults, and that it is one of the leading causes of preventable blindness. Thankfully, though, in most cases, glaucoma is entirely treatable through medicines and surgical procedures.
There are some factors that contribute to the likelihood that a person may develop glaucoma. People of African-American and Hispanic descent, for example, have an increased probability of developing glaucoma. The risk for developing glaucoma increases dramatically after the age of 35, and it only continues to increase with age. Several other risk factors include a history of glaucoma in an immediate family member, prior use of steroid medications or previous eye injuries.
Glaucoma can commonly be treated with eye drops to lower eye pressure. The eye has “pressure” just like your car’s tires have “pressure.” In order to lower the pressure in the eye, drops work to increase the drainage of fluid from the eye or work to decrease how much fluid the eye makes. Both of these result in lower eye pressure. There are laser treatments available now that can use the body’s own healing response to lower eye pressure. One procedure -- known as Selective Laser Trabeculoplasty -- targets specific cells of the eye containing a pigment called melanin. This laser does not damage the surrounding tissue, but it causes the eye to essentially clean out the natural drainage system so that it works more effectively. This often is performed painlessly in an office setting and is not associated with systemic side effects. Finally, there are other surgeries that can be used to treat glaucoma that fail treatment with these other methods. These are surgical methods to increase the drainage of fluid out of the eye to lower eye pressure either by making a new drainage pathway or opening up the drain system.
Most glaucoma has no obvious symptoms until the disease is very advanced. Unfortunately, even though the disease is treatable, the vision lost from glaucoma cannot be recovered. There are some less-common types of glaucoma, such as angle closure glaucoma that do cause symptoms. These include sudden decrease of vision, extreme eye pain, frequent headaches, nausea, vomiting and light sensitivity. Early detection and prevention are the most-effective ways to address glaucoma, and this is only possible through routine eye exams. People 40 years and older should have regular eye examinations, including a check for glaucoma.
If you haven’t had a routine eye exam so far this year, May is a good time to schedule an appointment, as it’s Healthy Vision Month. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, vision loss and blindness caused by many types of eye conditions can be reduced or eliminated through prevention, protection, and early diagnosis and treatment of eye diseases.
Dr. Kirk Haun is a board-certified ophthalmologist specializing in eye care who serves on the courtesy medical staff of Blount Memorial Hospital. He is a member of the American Academy of Ophthalmology and is a fellow in the American College of Surgeons.