What is glaucoma?

Glaucoma is a disease of the eye that results in optic nerve damage. You have probably had that drain in your house that just slowly gets clogged – so slow that no one really seems to notice. That essentially is what is happening in someone’s eye, when they have glaucoma. When the eye slowly starts to have trouble draining its internal fluid, which normally flows in and out of your eye, pressure builds up in the eye. The increased pressure can damage the optic nerve, which is the part of the nervous system that sends visual information from your eye to your brain. If left untreated, vision loss and even blindness can occur.

Glaucoma is the second leading cause of blindness in the world, according to the World Health Organization. An estimated 3 million Americans have glaucoma, but only about half of them know it, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

What are glaucoma symptoms?

Open-angle glaucoma, accounting for over 90% of cases, is painless and develops very gradually over decades. Most people notice no symptoms until it is too late and their vision is impaired. Peripheral (side) vision starts to degrade first, followed by central vision. This is why glaucoma has been called the “silent thief of sight”. As a result, it is important to have regular glaucoma screenings because with early detection and treatment, vision loss and blindness can be prevented.

Closed-angle glaucoma, however, is a medical emergency. Symptoms can strike quickly and can include severe throbbing eye pain, eye redness, headache, blurry or foggy vision, halos around lights, dilated pupil, and nausea/vomiting. People often describe this as “the worst eye pain of my life”. Damage to the optic nerve may begin within a few hours and, if not treated within 6 to 12 hours, it may bring severe permanent loss of vision or blindness, and even a permanently enlarged (dilated) pupil.

Who is at risk for glaucoma?

Some people have a higher than normal risk of getting glaucoma. This includes people who:

  • are over age 40
  • have family members with glaucoma
  • are of African, Hispanic, or Asian heritage
  • have elevated eye pressure
  • are extremely farsighted or nearsighted
  • have had an eye injury
  • use long-term steroid medications
  • have diabetes, high blood pressure, poor blood circulation

How is glaucoma treated?

Glaucoma treatments range from eye-drops to surgery. The common goal of all glaucoma treatments is to lower pressure inside the eye and prevent further damage to the optic nerve. Most patients with newly diagnosed, early glaucoma are put on therapy in the form of prescription eye drops or pills. These medications either decrease the amount of fluid being produced or help the existing fluid drain from the eye.

Laser treatments are another safe and noninvasive way of reducing eye pressure in a matter of minutes. A regular schedule of treatments is necessary to continue progress since laser treatments can wear off over time.

Lastly, several surgical procedures may be performed to improve drainage flow. Even though these procedures have a fairly high success rate, they are generally reserved until medical therapy is no longer effective.

Glaucoma patients require a lifetime of regular treatment and care aimed at controlling the eye’s fluid pressure. If left unchecked, slow decreased vision loss can go unnoticed by the patient until it is too late. Regular testing is important to determine if there is any progression in the disease and to manage it properly. Our approach is to help educate and tend to patients with a continuum of care that ensures success from diagnosis to management.

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