January is Glaucoma Awareness Month so we are focusing on answering as many questions as possible about the disease. It is estimated that over 3 million people in America suffer from glaucoma, but only half know they have it. So, what exactly is glaucoma and how do you protect yourself from it? We’ll explore these questions and more in this blog.
What is Glaucoma?
Glaucoma is a disease that is characterized by damage to the optic nerve, often associated with elevated eye pressure. This damage is what causes visual impairment and ultimately blindness if left untreated. The most common type of glaucoma steals sight over a long period of time. Therefore, many people are left undiagnosed since they are unable to detect substantial vision changes that would prompt them to see a doctor. This image shows what vision could be like with advanced glaucoma.
While glaucoma usually occurs in people over the age of 40, it is possible to develop at any age. The disease can be hereditary so it is important to talk with your family members to learn if anyone has been diagnosed. Other risk factors include being nearsighted, African-American, or having diabetes. Even if you don’t have one of these risk factors, we recommend annual exams to ensure your eye health since glaucoma has no symptoms.
Types of Glaucoma
There are many different types of glaucoma, but open-angle glaucoma is the most common, accounting for over 90% of cases. The exact cause of open-angle glaucoma is unknown but it is categorized by a decreased drainage of the fluid in eye. This results in increased pressure on the optic nerve, which can cause vision loss if left unchecked. This type of glaucoma is slow to develop, and rarely has symptoms that would not be noticed by the patient.
Angle-closure glaucoma is a less common but much more aggressive form of glaucoma. Symptoms of this type of glaucoma include severe eye pain, headache, nausea, vomiting, and profuse tearing. It is normal for only one eye to be affected and for symptoms to worsen over the course of a few hours. These attacks are caused by a drastic and sudden change in intraocular pressure resulting from a blockage where the fluid inside the eye drains. These are considered medical emergencies and need to be treated as soon as possible to decrease the chance of permanent damage to the affected eye.
photo credit: http://pgheyemds.com
The treatment of glaucoma is based on the type of glaucoma present with the goal being to reduce vision loss by lowering intraocular pressure. Most cases of open-angle glaucoma can be treated with prescription eye drops that lower the eye pressure. Some patients may be treated with laser procedures designed to open the area where the fluid drains. Severe cases may require surgery to provide even better drainage. Angle-closure glaucoma is treated more aggressively with the immediate focus on quickly reducing eye pressure with drops or oral medication. Once stabilized, most patients will undergo a laser procedure to create a new drainage avenue to prevent further attacks.
Risks of Not Getting a Yearly Eye Exam
Glaucoma is an extremely dangerous disease to leave untreated and will cause the person to go blind within a few years. Once the damage to the nerve has occurred, vision cannot be restored. For this, and other reasons, it is recommended that people get a yearly eye exam to make sure their eyes are not exhibiting signs of glaucoma without them knowing. Early detection and treatment is the number one way to decrease vision loss associated with this disease.