Glaucoma – it’s not just your grandparent’s eye disease

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Glaucoma is an eye disease reported to affect some four million Americans and 60 million people worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports glaucoma as the second leading cause of blindness in the world. Various other sources offer that while around four million Americans have glaucoma, about half of those are not even aware they are afflicted. Contributing to this reduced awareness is a lack of patient education on glaucoma, not having an annual thorough eye evaluation, and the fact that glaucoma, for the most part, is a disease with sparse or no symptoms.

Glaucoma is an eye disease often associated with elevated eye pressure (or intraocular pressure). This pressure causes damage to the eye, specifically the optic nerve, which leads to vision loss and at times, blindness. The etiology, or cause, is quite uncertain and highly debated. There are many types of glaucoma, but the two main types are ‘open angle’ and ‘closed angle’ glaucoma. Of these two forms, open angle glaucoma is far more prevalent and encompasses about 90% of all glaucoma cases. One certainty with glaucoma, if not detected and treated, is it can lead to visual issues that greatly affect someone’s lifestyle and, sadly, even result in blindness.

Practitioners often look to specific risk factors in diagnosing the disease. Risk factors are characteristics, attributes, and/or exposures an individual might have had to something that would increase the chance for disease. For glaucoma, risk factors include but are not limited to age, family history, higher eye pressures, and unusual presentation of the optic nerve. Again, these are only some of the risk factors, but each of these, along with additional risk factors, can significantly raise the potential or chance for the disease.

Many patients are followed as a “suspect” for glaucoma. This means they have associated risk factors, but advanced diagnostic testing indicates there is currently no need for treatment. However, these patients need to be continually evaluated with repeat testing. When diagnosed and treatment is needed, the disease can be managed with medication, laser treatment, or surgery. If medical intervention occurs early enough, vision can be preserved and extensive damage avoided. If not diagnosed in a timely manner, the disease can advance to where the progression of damage can be slowed, but not completely stopped. Various forms of ophthalmic testing are performed to assess the progression of glaucoma with the goal of treatment to reduce pressure within the eye.

Glaucoma can be a confusing and misunderstood disease, especially when a person does not realize he or she is afflicted. Important points to know about glaucoma are:

  • Anyone can be at risk for the condition, but some more than others, such as those with family history or higher eye pressure
  • If untreated, glaucoma can lead to great visual challenges and possibly blindness
  • The most common form of glaucoma, open angle glaucoma, unfortunately offers almost no symptoms and has no obvious cure
  • The best chance to reduce possible devastating eye and vision effects of the disease is by getting a thorough, comprehensive eye examination

Remember, early detection is vital to protect your eyes from glaucoma and other eye health issues, which is why it’s so important to routinely have your eyes examined!