January is National Glaucoma Awareness Month. Glaucoma, with almost no signs or systems, is the leading cause of vision loss and irreversible blindness in the United States. The most important thing to remember about glaucoma is that early diagnosis and treatment is the key to preserving sight.
Glaucoma often goes undetected because it is a painless condition. Vision loss may progress slowly and not be noticed until the condition is advanced. This is why it is so important to have a screening eye examination. If caught early, before symptoms occur, treatment may be as simple as using a medicated eye drop to control eye pressure. In this way, vision loss may be avoided. If damage has already occurred, treatment may prevent further damage from occurring.
Glaucoma occurs as a result of changes in the optic nerve and gets worse over time. It’s often linked to a buildup of pressure inside your eye. Pressure, called intraocular pressure, from a buildup of fluid in the eyeball is a major risk factor for glaucoma. Normally, this fluid nourishes your eye and keeps it healthy. After the fluid circulates, it empties through a drain in the front of your eye. In people who have glaucoma, the drain in the eye is blocked and the fluid can’t run out of the eyeball. Instead, the fluid builds up and causes increased pressure in the eye. Vision loss is caused by damage to the optic nerve. This nerve acts like an electric cable with over a million wires. It is responsible for carrying images from the eye to the brain. Once the disease has affected your vision, there is no way to restore eyesight or reverse the damage. If the damage continues, glaucoma can lead to permanent vision loss. If treated in time, before symptoms occur, glaucoma can be treated and controlled by medications and vision loss can be avoided. Without treatment, glaucoma can cause total permanent blindness within a few years.
There is no cure for glaucoma — yet. Treatment can include eye drops, pills or surgery. Until more comprehensive clinical techniques are developed, the goal of treatment is to preserve the patient’s vision, medication or surgery can slow or prevent further vision loss. The appropriate treatment depends upon the type of glaucoma among other factors. Early detection is vital to stopping the progress of the disease.
The first sign is often a loss of peripheral, or side, vision. That can go unnoticed until late in the disease. That’s why glaucoma is often called the “sneak thief of vision.” Glaucoma tends to be inherited and may not show up until later in life.
Although the most common forms primarily affect the middle-aged and the elderly, glaucoma can affect people of all ages, including babies and young children, but is most common in adults in their 70s and 80s. Anyone can get glaucoma, but certain groups are at higher risk. Those at higher risk include people of African, Asian, and Hispanic descent. Other high-risk groups include people over 60, family members of those already diagnosed, diabetics. People with diabetes are two times more likely to get glaucoma than people without diabetes. Individuals with high blood pressure, hypertension, or those with a family history of glaucoma are at higher risk for glaucoma. Nearsightedness may increase the risk of glaucoma as well. Regular eye exams are especially important for those at higher risk for glaucoma and may help to prevent unnecessary vision loss.
Primary, Family and General Physicians being on the forefront of an overall health evaluation have an ability today to help the cause and conduct quick glaucoma screenings in an office setting as step one and refer patients determined to be at risk for a further, more comprehensive evaluation with an eye care professional. Glaucoma preventive screenings are becoming a standard. Family doctors are adding new medical devices which allow quick, non-invasive and painless ways to detect glaucoma in early stages.
Primary care providers could have a major role in detecting, recognizing and referring patients who are at the highest risk of developing glaucoma. For example, primary care physicians can ask about a patient’s family history of glaucoma, along with checking their patients’ optic nerves to see if the referral to an eye specialist is needed.
Detecting glaucoma early is one reason you should have a complete exam with an eye specialist every 1 to 2 years. Occasionally, a pressure inside the eye can rise to severe levels. In these cases, you may have sudden eye pain, headache, blurred vision, or the appearance of halos around lights.
If you’re over age 40 and have a family history of the disease, you should get a complete eye exam from an eye doctor every 1 to 2 years. If you have health problems like diabetes or a family history of glaucoma or are at risk for other eye diseases, you may need to go more often.
You should have a routine eye test at least every two years. Several quick and painless tests can be carried out to check for glaucoma, including measurements of the pressure inside your eye and tests of your peripheral vision. If glaucoma is picked up during an eye test, you should be referred to an ophthalmologist (eye doctor) for further tests and to discuss treatment.
Your ophthalmologist will confirm your diagnosis and find out:
- how far the condition has developed
- how much damage the glaucoma has done to your eyes
- what may have caused the glaucoma
Your treatment largely depends on which type of glaucoma you have. There are two main types of glaucoma, open angle glaucoma and closed angle glaucoma.
There are many steps you can take to help protect your eyes and lower your risk of vision loss from glaucoma.
- If you are in a high-risk group, get a comprehensive dilated eye exam to catch glaucoma early and start treatment. Prescription eye drops can stop glaucoma from progressing. Your eye care specialist will recommend how often to return for follow-up exams.
- Even if you are not in a high-risk group, getting a comprehensive dilated eye exam by the age of 40 can help catch glaucoma and other eye diseases early.
- Open-angle glaucoma does not have symptoms and is hereditary, so talk to your family members about their vision health to help protect your eyes—and theirs.
- Maintaining a healthy weight, controlling your blood pressure, being physically active, and avoiding smoking will help you avoid vision loss from glaucoma. These healthy behaviors will also help prevent type 2 diabetes and other chronic conditions.
The only way to know what’s really going on with your eyes is to see an eye care professional.
Visit your doctor if you have any concerns about your vision. For patients diagnosed with glaucoma, regular eye clinic follow-up is needed to ensure that the eye pressure is controlled. If you have glaucoma, early diagnosis and treatment can help stop your vision getting worse.
Glaucoma is so common that 3 million people in the U.S. alone suffer from the disease, yet half are unaware that they even have glaucoma because there are no symptoms until vision issues occur. Combined with our aging population, we can see an epidemic of blindness looming if we don’t raise awareness about the importance of regular eye examinations to preserve vision. Taking action to preserve your vision health is a key. Know the facts, know the risks, and take action.
This year, take steps towards protecting your eyes and the vision health of your loved ones by learning about glaucoma and other eye diseases. Get a healthy start this year by learning about glaucoma and taking steps to reduce your risk of vision loss!
Don’t be blindsided by glaucoma. Schedule an eye examination, today!