Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases that causes damage to the eye’s optic nerve. It can result in partial vision loss or eventual blindness. While glaucoma can’t be cured, there are steps you can take to catch it early and treatments your eye doctor can prescribe to prevent or limit vision loss.
The primary risk factor for glaucoma is high eye pressure, which causes damage to the optic nerve, the bundle of nerves that connects from the retina of your eye to your brain. Generally, this high eye pressure occurs as a result of fluid getting backed up in the eye and building pressure, although it can also result from problems with blood pressure and blood flow.
The most common form of glaucoma is open-angle glaucoma, which affects approximately 3 million Americans. It occurs when the anterior chamber, a space at the front of the eye, has a problem draining fluid. Normally, fluid flows freely in and out of this chamber at what is called the drainage “angle,” the place where the cornea and the iris meet.
With open-angle glaucoma, the angle stays open as the name suggests, but drainage slows down from deeper inside the drainage canals. The fluid starts to back up and creates an increase in eye pressure. If this eye pressure gets high enough, it can cause damage to the optic nerve.
Generally, someone developing open-angle glaucoma will only experience one symptom at first: slow vision loss. This can make it difficult for an individual to detect glaucoma on their own until the vision loss has reached a point where it’s hard to ignore.
The Importance of Regular Eye Exams
This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to have regular eye exams. Regular eye exams involving a check of your eye pressure and early treatment to control the pressure in your eyes are key to helping you prevent serious vision loss from glaucoma. Other reasons to have regular eye exams include:
To determine what eye pressure is normal for you. Not everyone who has high eye pressure will develop glaucoma. What’s normal eye pressure for one person may not be normal for another. Your eye doctor can determine what target eye pressure you need to maintain to protect your optic nerve from damage.
To determine if you have glaucoma from a cause other than increased eye pressure. For example, low-tension glaucoma shares several characteristics with open-angle glaucoma, but does not involve high eye pressure.
To determine if you have risk factors that could lead to the development of glaucoma. Risk factors your eye doctor can look for other than high eye pressure include thinness of the cornea or abnormal optic nerve anatomy.
To catch problems early to start treating glaucoma sooner, or to catch problems early enough to prevent glaucoma from ever happening. In some cases, individuals with a certain combination of risk factors, can reduce their chances of developing glaucoma by about 50 percent simply with treatments using eyedrops.
To get a more accurate picture of your eye health. Your eye pressure changes from day to day, so getting a single eye pressure test from your doctor generally isn’t enough. The smart thing to do is get checked by your eye doctor regularly to give him or her more opportunity to discover changes in your vision or potential problems with your eyes.
To determine treatment options that work for you. For example, if you have chronic open-angle glaucoma, you’ll need to ensure it is monitored throughout your life to preserve your vision as best as possible. Your eye doctor can create a treatment plan for you.
The Tests That May Be Performed
The tests your eye doctor might perform to determine if you have glaucoma include:
A dilated eye exam where drops are placed in your eyes to widen the pupils. Your eye doctor examines your retina and optic nerve for signs of damage and other eye problems.
A visual acuity test that measures how well you see at varying distances.
A visual field test that helps your eye doctor determine if you have lost your side vision.
A test where your eye doctor applies a numbing drop to your eye and uses an instrument called a pachymetry to measure the thickness of your cornea.
A second, but rare form of glaucoma is called angle-closure glaucoma. In this case, a person’s iris is not as wide or as open as it should be. The angle where drainage occurs gets blocked by part of the iris and closes. Fluid at the front of the eye has nowhere to go and gets backed up.
An individual with angle-closure glaucoma may experience a sudden, extreme increase in eye pressure which results in symptoms such as severe eye pain which may cause nausea or vomiting, sudden loss of vision in one eye, or sudden hazy or very blurry vision. This is called an acute attack and is a medical emergency. If this occurs, contact your eye doctor and get to the nearest hospital right away.
Take Action Now
There is no cure for glaucoma and vision loss cannot be restored. However, glaucoma can be managed. It can be treated with eye drops, laser surgery, pills, traditional surgery or a combination of these methods. And the sooner you are treated, the sooner you can start preventing further vision loss.