January is Glaucoma Awareness Month. According to glaucoma.org “more than 3 million people in the United States have glaucoma. The National Eye Institute projects this number will reach 4.2 million by 2030, a 58 percent increase. Glaucoma is called “the sneak thief of sight” since there are no symptoms and once vision is lost, it’s permanent. As much as 40% of vision can be lost without a person noticing.”
Glaucoma is a group of diseases characterized by damage to the optic nerve, the nerve that transmits images to your brain, which gradually causes a loss of vision. Usually the damage to the optic nerve in glaucoma results from an abnormally high pressure inside your eye (intraocular pressure).
While there are several types of glaucoma, chronic open angle glaucoma is by far the most common type. The eye is continuously bathed and nourished by a clear fluid known as the aqueous humor which drains out though a mesh like channel located in the front of the eye. The balance of pressure in the eyeball depends on both the production and drainage of this fluid. In open angle glaucoma the drainage system appears normal but does not function properly. Pressure slowly rises and over time affects the optic nerve. In the early stages, glaucoma produces no symptoms and only becomes apparent as nerve damage progresses resulting in a loss of peripheral (side) vision. Over time vision may decrease until an individual eventually can become blind. In most cases glaucoma affects both eyes.
Chronic glaucoma occurs most commonly among individuals over age 50 and effects about 1 in a 100 persons. It is a leading cause of blindness and is more common among those who are African American and in those with a family history of glaucoma. Other risk factors include diabetes, a previous eye injury, high blood pressure and the chronic use of steroids. There is no known way of preventing glaucoma and the key to preventing visual loss is early detection and treatment.
The frequency of glaucoma testing depends on risk factors but generally those over age 45 should be tested at least every two years. The most common method of screening involves directing an air puff against the eye and by measuring the indentation the intraocular pressure can be assessed. Other screening methods include dilating the eye with drops to widen the pupil and using the ophthalmoscope to look into the eye to detect changes in the optic nerve, checking visual acuity and looking for areas of vision loss. If screening suggests the presence of glaucoma an eye doctor may do further testing.
Eye drops are usually the first from of treatment and help decrease the pressure within the eye. These medicines either reduce the formation of fluid in the eye or help increase outflow. If medication fails to control the process surgery may be indicated. While there is not cure for glaucoma, early detection and treatment can preserve vision in most individuals. Individuals with glaucoma should make sure they take their medications every day and see their eye doctor regularly.
In the United States, approximately 120,000 are blind from glaucoma, accounting for 9% to 12% of all cases of blindness. Here are four ways you can help raise awareness:
- Talk to friends and family about glaucoma. If you have glaucoma, don’t keep it a secret. Let your family members know.
- Refer a friend to our web site, www.glaucoma.org.
- Request to have a free educational booklet sent to you or a friend.
- Get involved in your community through fundraisers, information sessions, group discussions, inviting expert speakers, and more.
Dr. Martin Lipsky
Roseman University of Health Sciences
Chancellor – South Jordan Campus