Glaucoma is often known as the “sneak thief of sight” — everyone has at least some risk of getting it, its symptoms are often unnoticed and it can cause partial or full blindness. A study by the Eye Diseases Prevalence Research Group estimates that more than three million people have glaucoma, but only half know about it, making glaucoma awareness an important vision health issue.
January is Glaucoma Awareness Month, so now is a good time to learn more about the disease.
“In the U.S. there is a significant and growing incidence of glaucoma, resulting in the second-leading cause of blindness in the nation,” said Dr. Alan Mendelsohn, former president of the Florida Society of Ophthalmology.
Here’s what you need to know.
What Is Glaucoma?
Glaucoma is the term used to describe a group of ocular diseases that are characterized by progressive, irreversible damage to the optic nerve in the back of the eye, Mendelsohn said. The fluid inside your eyeballs, called aqueous humor, is constantly being produced, circulated and drained out of the eyeballs.
“Aqueous humor should be produced and drained out of the eye at very similar rates, providing internal pressure in the eye, called intraocular pressure (IOP),” he said. If the drainage becomes partially clogged over time, pressure builds up in the eyeball and damages the optic nerve, resulting in loss of vision.
A far less common but still serious type of glaucoma is known as angle-closure glaucoma, Mendelsohn said. In this instance the drain in the eye becomes suddenly blocked, resulting in an abrupt, significant elevation of IOP. “These patients are very symptomatic with eye pain, headaches, blurred vision and often nausea,” he said. “This is a true ocular emergency and requires immediate eyesight-saving laser surgery to markedly reduce the IOP.”
What Are the Risk Factors?
While everyone has some risk of glaucoma, there are factors that raise your risk. They include:
- Age — Those over 60 are more likely to get glaucoma.
- Family members with glaucoma — Open-angle glaucoma is hereditary.
- Eye injury — Sports-related injuries are especially common in causing glaucoma.
There is also some indication that race, near- and far-sightedness, high blood pressure and thickening of the cornea may affect the risk of glaucoma.
What Can Be Done?
Regular eye exams can help you catch glaucoma before it destroys too much of your eyesight. “If someone has no family history of glaucoma nor any evidence of glaucoma on an examination then a comprehensive ocular exam should be performed annually to make sure that all is well,” Mendelsohn said.
Medication, laser procedures and surgery are the options to treat chronic open-angle glaucoma, Mendelsohn said, to reduce the pressure within the eyeball in order to halt the progression of the disease. If you’re prescribed eye drops, it’s important to use them to maintain the remaining eyesight, because vision can’t be restored once it has been lost due to optic nerve damage. So during Glaucoma Awareness Month, commit to taking advantage of your preventive-care options for your eye health.
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