January is Glaucoma Awareness Month
Make your resolution for healthy vision this year by knowing the risks and signs of glaucoma.
As the leading cause of blindness worldwide, glaucoma has earned the nickname “The Sneak Thief of Sight”. This is because most often there no symptoms or less commonly, a sudden onset of serious symptoms that can quickly lead to vision loss if not treated.
Glaucoma-related vision loss is due to optic nerve damage. The damage cannot be reversed, however there is treatment which is particularly beneficial when initiated early on before significant nerve damage has occurred.
While anyone can develop glaucoma (children are sometimes even born with it) there are risk factors that increase the chances of developing the disease. These include:
- Age over 60 (over 40 for African Americans)
- Family history of the disease
- Elevated intraocular (eye) pressure
- African American, Japanese, or Hispanic descent
- Previous eye injury or surgery
- History of corticosteroid treatment
- Severe myopia (nearsightedness) or hyperopia (farsightedness)
Known measures to help prevent glaucoma or reduce the risks include maintaining a healthy diet and weight, regular exercise, refraining from smoking and protecting your eyes from UV exposure. Controlling blood pressure is also beneficial.
Types of Glaucoma
There are two main types of glaucoma, open-angle and angle-closure. Open-angle glaucoma accounts for approximately 70-90% of cases. It is a chronic disease that progresses slowly over time, usually without symptoms. Angle-closure glaucoma can be chronic or acute, has symptoms of eye pain, and is often caused by an inherited condition or the result of an eye injury.
While each of these types of glaucoma has sub-types, the major differences between them has to do with the way the disease affects the eye and the symptoms experienced. While open-angle often has no early symptoms yet may eventually cause loss of peripheral vision, angle-closure glaucoma is often characterized by more obvious signs such as blurred vision, pain, headaches, tunnel vision, halos that appear around lights and even nausea and dizziness. These symptoms can be a medical emergency and must be treated immediately.
Since there are often no symptoms as glaucoma develops, regular eye health screenings are key to early diagnosis and treatment. Such screenings should include an examination of the optic nerve, measuring the inner eye pressure and the peripheral visual field. As many as half of the cases of glaucoma occur with normal or even low eye pressure (low tension glaucoma) and therefore an assessment of the optic nerve is a crucial component of every eye exam.
Newer technologies such as OCT can painlessly scan the optic nerve and determine if there is glaucomatous damage even earlier than visual field tests or other exams might show.
Treatment for Glaucoma
While vision that is lost can’t be restored, intraocular pressure can be lowered to try to prevent further damage to the optic nerve. Treatment may include eye drops and/or a surgical procedure, depending on the type of glaucoma, the cause, and the severity of the disease.
If you have been diagnosed with glaucoma and prescribed eye drops, it is critical to use the eye drops as directed even if they irritate your eyes or you do not notice improvement in vision. The eye drops prevent eye pressure spikes that can continue to damage the optic nerve. Since the vision loss from glaucoma is not reversible, ask your eye doctor to try a different brand if you have concerns with the eye drops that you are using.
Childhood eye injuries, such as a ball hit or puncture, particularly one which has altered the internal structures of the eye or allowed fluid to flow out of the eye can cause problems later in life. Glaucoma that results from such long-forgotten injuries may not be detected until years after the injury, so it is important to have regular ongoing routine eye checkups.
The best way to protect your eyes and vision from this devastating disease, especially if you have heightened risk factors, is to ensure that you have regular comprehensive eye exams to look for signs of glaucoma inside the eye. Since symptoms often don’t appear until damage is done, the best course of action is prevention.
If you have any of the risk factors listed above, speak to your eye doctor about glaucoma and what you can do to prevent future vision loss.