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Glaucoma 101

by Dr. Joseph Parker

Glaucoma is a condition that many people have heard of before. But not many people understand what it actually is, and this can be a problem. In fact, many people mistakenly think they can tell if they have glaucoma by symptoms. This is, unfortunately, incorrect and is one of the reasons that glaucoma is the second leading cause of blindness worldwide according to the World Health Organization (approximately 65 million).

Approximately 2.2 million people in the U.S. have glaucoma, of which, only 50% actually know they have it. This is a frightening statistic and one that I hope this article can make an impact on.

What is Glaucoma?

So what is glaucoma? Glaucoma is an eye condition in which the optic nerve becomes damaged. The optic nerve is responsible for transmitting visual information from your eye to your brain. If this nerve is damaged, the visual information is unable to reach the brain. The result is permanent vision loss.

Open Angle Glaucoma

There are many types of glaucoma, but the most common type is called Open Angle Glaucoma that involves elevated pressure inside the eyes. This occurs when the fluid inside the eye is unable to drain efficiently. As this fluid pressure inside of the eye becomes elevated, it presses on the optic nerve. This pressure causes damage to the optic nerve.

Symptoms of Glaucoma

Both the elevation of intraocular pressure and the resulting optic nerve damage are completely symptomless. Specifically, patients are unable to feel pain from this nerve damage because the optic nerve does not transmit pain sensation but rather visual information.

Gradual Vision Loss with Glaucoma

The vision that is lost typically occurs peripherally first. Because glaucoma generally affects peripheral vision first, people may unconsciously adapt by turning their heads. By the time patients begin to have visual symptoms that involve central vision, the disease is generally advanced. Fortunately, the vision loss in glaucoma generally progresses very slowly. Because of this, continued vision loss often goes unnoticed.

Diagnosing Glaucoma & Risk Factors

So how can a person know if they have glaucoma and who are the people who are most at risk? Having an eye exam is the only way to know for sure that a person does or does not have glaucoma. Those that are at risk for Primary Open Angle Glaucoma are people over the age of 60 or those who have a parent or sibling with glaucoma. People of African descent are 6 times more likely to have glaucoma than Caucasians. Other risk factors include people who are nearsighted, have diabetes or hypertension or have a history of an eye injury.

Glaucoma Treatment Options

One thing that is important to know and understand is that there is no cure for glaucoma. Furthermore, there is no medication or surgery or glasses that can reverse vision loss once is has occurred. This is why it is so important for people to have regular eye exams.

Well, enough of the bad news, how about some good news? The good news is that there are safe and effective ways to help significantly reduce the risk of continued vision loss from glaucoma.

In most cases, topical eye drops are given to help reduce the intraocular pressure and can reduce a person’s risk for continued vision loss by up to 85%. Furthermore, these medications are extremely safe and effective. There are surgical and laser procedures to help reduce intraocular pressure in advanced cases or when topical medications alone are not effective.