Glaucoma is an eye condition that causes damage to the optic nerve. As the damage progresses, the afflicted individual experiences a gradual loss of vision over a long period of time. Approximately 14 million people worldwide suffer from glaucoma, including about 3 million in the United States.
The eye contains fluid which is designed to keep it lubricated and healthy. Normally, this fluid drains out through a tiny opening in the front corner of the eye. But in cases of glaucoma, this opening becomes blocked, which prevents the fluid from draining out. Consequently, pressure builds up inside the eyeball (known as intraocular pressure), which in turn damages the optical nerve cells and eventually results in vision loss.
Glaucoma sufferers will initially notice blind spots on the sides of their field of vision in one or both eyes. Unless the condition is treated effectively, the person’s vision in the center of the eye will also be compromised - which can lead to total, irreversible blindness.
There are two types of glaucoma, each of which is characterized by different symptoms. Primary open angle glaucoma starts with a gradual loss of peripheral vision in both eyes, with tunnel vision occurring in the advanced stages. Acute angle closure glaucoma causes severe eye pain, nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, redness in the eyes, and the appearance of “halos” when the patient views lights.
The risk factors for glaucoma include high intraocular pressure, high blood pressure, heart disease, hypothyroidism, and diabetes. People who are above the age of 60 or are Latino or African-American tend to be affected more frequently by glaucoma. A family history of glaucoma, prolonged use of corticosteroid medications, and nearsightedness may also raise the odds of developing this condition.
To determine a person’s intraocular pressure, a painless diagnostic procedure known as a tonometry test is performed. Other tests are done to evaluate the level of optic nerve damage and reduction in the patient’s field of vision. A pachymetry test is conducted to measure the thickness of the cornea. The doctor may also order a gonioscopy to inspect the angle of drainage of the optical fluid, as well as a tonography test to measure how quickly the fluid is draining. All of these test results can help a physician figure out if glaucoma is present in a patient.
There is no cure for glaucoma, but there are several treatments available that can reduce intraocular pressure and inhibit the progression of vision loss. Medicated eye drops containing prostaglandin-like compounds, beta blockers, alpha agonists, cholinergic agents, carbonic anhydrase inhibitors, or epinephrine compounds can help treat the symptoms of the condition. An oral medication known as a carbonic anhydrase can also perform the same function.
If medications are not effective in retarding the progress of glaucoma, then surgery must be performed. A procedure known as a trabeculoplasty incorporates small laser beams to open clogged drainage canals in the eyes and allow the fluid to drain out. Other surgical alternatives include drainage implants or filtering surgery, both of which can facilitate fluid drainage and lower intraocular pressure.
If a patient is suffering from acute angle closure glaucoma, then it is treated as a medical emergency. In addition to administering different medications, a surgeon will likely perform an iridotomy, which utilizes lasers to open a tiny hole in the iris to allow fluid to drain out.
Annual eye care checkups are strongly encouraged, especially for adults over 60 years of age. If an optometrist discovers that a person’s intraocular pressure is high, then eye drops will be prescribed to stop the pressure from increasing to the point where glaucoma develops. It is vital that patients who are given eye drops use them as directed, even when they don’t experience any glaucoma symptoms.
People who have high blood pressure or diabetes should regularly check their blood pressure and blood sugar levels and do whatever they can to keep these values within normal parameters. In order to defend against eye injuries, it is very important to use protective eyewear in high-risk activities such as playing sports or working with chemicals; because severe optical injuries can cause glaucoma.
Prevent Blindness America
Many countries are now viewing glaucoma as a serious medical threat. In fact, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has included federal funding for vision and eye health services in community health centers for the very first time. Also, an organization called Prevent Blindness America has been working to expand optical services throughout the United States. As the American population ages over the next several years, the nation is becoming more aware of the dangers caused by glaucoma. So it is essential that individuals do everything they can to avoid developing the condition – because the blindness that glaucoma causes cannot be reversed.