January is National Glaucoma Awareness month; a good time to learn more about the disease known as the “Silent Thief” of sight. It’s aptly named because in the early stages of the disease, there are no sign or symptoms that it is developing and posing a risk to vision. Here’s the important information you need about glaucoma.
Glaucoma is one of the most common chronic eye diseases for seniors. It is the second leading cause of irreversible blindness around the world and the leading cause of blindness for seniors over the age of 64 in the United States. Statistics show the damage the disease can cause:
- It is estimated that over three million Americans have glaucoma but only half of those know they have it.
- In the U.S., more than 120,000 are blind from glaucoma, accounting for 9% to 12% of all cases of blindness.
- After cataracts, glaucoma is the leading cause of blindness among African Americans. (1)
- Blindness from glaucoma is 6 to 8 times more common in African Americans than Caucasians.
In its early stages, glaucoma has no symptoms. Half the people with glaucoma do not know they have it. It’s important to have regular eye exams so that your ophthalmologist can find the disease before it damages your vision.
There are two types of glaucoma.
They are called primary open-angle glaucoma and angle-closure glaucoma (sometimes called closed-angle or narrow-angle glaucoma).
- Primary open-angle glaucoma is the most common type. It happens gradually, is painless and causes no vision changes in its early stages.
- Angle-closure glaucoma occurs when the iris blocks the drainage of fluid from the eye. When the drainage becomes completely blocked eye pressure rises very quickly, causing an acute attack of glaucoma. If that happens your eyesight may suddenly become blurry, you may have severe eye pain, a headache, nausea, or see rainbow colored rings or halos around lights. This is a true eye emergency and you should call an ophthalmologist immediately or you may go blind. As with other types of glaucoma, the angle-closure type of the disease develops slowly with no symptoms until there is a sudden attack.
Are you at risk for developing glaucoma?
Risk factors include:
- Being over the age of 40
- Family members with glaucoma
- African or Hispanic heritage
- Diagnosed with high eye pressure
- Are farsighted or nearsighted
- Have had an eye injury
- Have corneas that are thin in the center or a thinning of the optic nerve
- Have diabetes, migraines, poor blood circulation or other health problems affecting the whole body
Only eye exams can diagnose glaucoma
Only a comprehensive eye exam will detect signs of glaucoma. An experienced optometrist can conduct a highly specialized exam that will check for all the factors that contribute to glaucoma:
- Measure eye pressure
- Inspect the eye’s drainage angle
- Examine the optic nerve for damage
- Test your peripheral (side) vision
- Take a picture or computer measurement of your optic nerve
- Measure the thickness of your cornea
Glaucoma is a permanent condition but there are treatments.
The damage caused to the eye by glaucoma cannot be reversed. However, there are treatments that can prevent further damage and highly advanced medical devices that can enhance low vision. Treatments for Glaucoma include:
Eye drops: Daily eye drops lower eye pressure by reducing the amount of fluid that the eye makes and/or by helping fluid in the eye to flow better through the drainage angle. Some eye drops have side effects like itching, dry mouth or blurred vision.
Laser surgery: Laser surgery helps fluid to drain for the eye by addressing the drainage angle and helping it to work better. For those who have angle-closure glaucoma, laser surgery treats the iris and helps fluid flow to the drainage angle in the eye.
There are other surgical treatments available to create new drainage channels or implant tiny drainage tubes in the eye in order to lower eye pressure. New treatments for glaucoma are constantly being researched and developed. Your ophthalmologist should discuss the treatment options that will be most effective for you, based on the specific causes of your glaucoma.
The most important thing to remember about glaucoma is that early detection and treatment are essential. Because the disease has no early symptoms, a thorough eye exam is the only way to detect the disease. Annual, comprehensive eye exams are essential to protect your eyes and your vision.