January is recognized as National Glaucoma Awareness Month and during this month we join optometrists around the nation in spreading awareness about this particular ocular disease. Glaucoma is one of the leading causes of vision loss, affecting over 3 million people within the United States alone.
What is Glaucoma?
Glaucoma is an eye disease that affects the optic nerve within your eye and its ability to function properly. Your optic nerve is responsible for transmitting visual information from your eyes to your brain. Glaucoma can be difficult as most patients do not experience any symptoms due to the gradual loss of vision. This disease progresses slowly beginning with the peripheral vision, making most unaware until their central vision becomes affected. It is estimated that as much as 40% of your vision can be lost before you notice any significant signs.
This condition is often caused by an increase in pressure within your eye. The pressure is caused by a buildup of fluid naturally made within your eyes. Normally, the fluid can drain easily through your cornea and iris, however, if these drains become blocked or obstructed, the pressure will increase. Eventually, this increased pressure damages your optic nerve tissue and affects your vision, and can lead to eventual blindness if left untreated. Unfortunately, vision loss caused by glaucoma is permanent and cannot be reversed.
As stated above the most common cause of glaucoma is a build-up of pressure within your eyes. Sometimes the increase of pressure is due to an unknown cause, but doctors do believe there are certain risk factors such as age, family history, history of trauma or injury to the eye, and certain medical conditions such as high blood pressure, poor circulation, and diabetes.
There are five major types of glaucoma and the symptoms will vary depending on the type with which you are diagnosed.
Open-angle glaucoma, also known as chronic glaucoma, is the most common type of glaucoma diagnosed annually. There are no signs or symptoms aside from gradual vision loss. For that reason, it is important to undergo annual comprehensive eye exams so that your optometrist can monitor your vision and note any changes.
Angle-closure glaucoma, also known as acute glaucoma or narrow-angle glaucoma, occurs when fluid within your eye becomes suddenly blocked resulting in a rapid buildup of pressure within the eye. This type of glaucoma is considered a medical emergency. Symptoms associated with angle-closure glaucoma may include severe eye pain, nausea, vomiting, red eyes, sudden blurred vision or vision disturbances, or seeing halos or colored rings around objects.
Children born with a defect in the angle of their eyes may prevent proper fluid drainage within the eye leading to a type of glaucoma known as congenital glaucoma. Symptoms may include cloudy eyes, tearing, and sensitivity to light. This type of glaucoma can be genetic and be passed down in families.
Glaucoma as a result of another medical condition such as cataracts or eye tumors is known as secondary glaucoma. Certain medications may also raise the risk of developing this type of glaucoma.
In some cases, people without an increase in eye pressure may damage their optic nerve and develop glaucoma. The exact cause may be unknown, however, certain risk factors such as poor circulation or high blood pressure may be a factor in this type of glaucoma.
To diagnose your condition, your doctor will perform a comprehensive eye examination and check for signs of deterioration or loss of optic nerve tissue. There is no cure for glaucoma so once confirmed, treatment will focus on slowing the progression of glaucoma to prevent any additional vision loss.
Typically, treatment begins with prescription eye drops or medication formulated to help reduce pressure within the eye. If more advanced treatment is necessary, surgery can be performed to ensure clear drainage paths to prevent pressure buildup. In cases of angle-closure glaucoma, immediate medical treatment is necessary to reduce pressure as quickly as possible. If medication is efficient, a laser procedure may be performed to allow the fluid to drain freely and reduce pressure.
The Importance of Eye Exams
Glaucoma cannot be prevented and often there are no symptoms, so early detection is vital to preventing permanent vision loss. Regular comprehensive eye exams can help your doctor note any changes in your vision or damage to your optic nerves. Early diagnosis will help the effectiveness of treatment. Patients who have a family history of glaucoma or pre-existing conditions are at an increased risk and should be screened annually.
For more information on glaucoma or to schedule an appointment, contact St. Lucy’s Vision Center today.