Glaucoma is a constellation of ocular conditions affecting the optic nerve, one of the most critical anatomical components of sight. It is one of the most common eye conditions in the United States, affecting over 2.5 million people, and one of the leading causes of blindness. It can also occur at nearly any age, although it usually develops in older adults over the age of 45 years-old. While the underlying cause of glaucoma is different for each patient, more often than not it is brought about by unusually high pressure within the eye. This increase in pressure can be caused by a wide range of factors, from high blood pressure to poor oral health to mismanagement of a chronic condition like diabetes.
There are two primary types of glaucoma: open- and narrow-angle. In open-angle glaucoma, the iris is positioned at such an angle that the aqueous humor, the clear fluid that fills the space in the front of the eyeball, can still drain through the trabecular meshwork. Open-angle glaucoma is generally painless and has a slower on-set, so it will often go unnoticed until the disease is far along. Conversely, patients suffering from closed-angle glaucoma do not have sufficient space between the iris and the cornea for the aqueous humor to drain, rapidly increasing the pressure in the eye. It should be considered an eye emergency if the trabecular meshwork is fully blocked and you should seek treatment immediately.
The symptoms of glaucoma tend to develop very slowly, so much so that often times patients don’t even recognize their vision is declining until the disease is in a very advanced stage. In addition to a loss of vision, common symptoms of glaucoma include:
- “Patchy” spots in the peripheral or central vision of one or both eyes
- Tunnel vision, especially in the more advanced stages of the disease
- Severe headaches
- Eye pain
Risk Factors and Prevention
Unfortunately, the risk factors for glaucoma are as common as they are significant. They include, but are not limited to:
- Long-term use of corticosteroid medications (re: eye drops)
- Damage to the optic nerve, either through injury or prior surgery
- Existing high intraocular pressure
- Being nearsighted
- Co-morbidities like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes or sickle cell anemia
- A family history of glaucoma
- Certain demographics, including being over the age of 60 years old and being of African American or Hispanic descent
Unfortunately, it is impossible to fully prevent glaucoma. However, one of the most important things for you to understand is that it is impossible to recover vision loss due to the onset of glaucoma. Therefore, practicing a healthy lifestyle and getting regular eye examinations is one of the best ways to prevent glaucoma from getting worse. If it’s caught early, your doctor has a good chance of slowing the progression of permanent vision loss; if it isn’t, there is far less they can do to stop the vision loss.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Properly diagnosing glaucoma involves an eye care professional measuring the pressure on the inside of your eyes. He or she will also run a series of tests assessing damage to the optic nerve, as well the corneal thickness and the current amount of vision loss you’re experiencing. Finally, they will determine the drainage angle of your eye – which will ultimately help them determine whether you’re experiencing glaucoma or another type of eye condition.
If you have been diagnosed with glaucoma, the most effective treatments involve lowering the pressure on the inside of your eye, This is typically accomplished through prescription eye drop medications, but if you have advanced glaucoma, your eye care professional may recommend laser treatment or even surgery to more adequately relieve the pressure in your eye.
Following treatment, you will still need to get regular checkups, and you’ll likely need to use prescription eye drops for the rest of your life. Glaucoma is very likely to return if you stop doing any of these things, so adherence to prescribed protocols is very important. Again, the damage done by this condition cannot be reversed, so you must proactively monitor your condition moving forward so as to ensure the disease does not progress.