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Catch glaucoma early before it takes your sight
Eye diseases scare people. Most of us cringe at the thought of losing our vision, and are willing to do whatever it takes to keep our eyes healthy and decrease the risk of contracting any type of eye disorder.
One disorder of the eye is glaucoma. This condition can sneak up on a person as it often has no symptoms until damage has been done and vision is compromised. Thankfully, it is a disease that is screened for regularly during an eye exam.
If you saw the diagram of the eye in last week’s column, you will remember that the eye is similar to a water balloon with a string attached. It consists of an outer covering that is full of fluid that gives it a round shape. The string is the optic nerve which leaves the back of the eye, carrying information to the brain.
The brain decodes that information into images that we understand as sight. There are tiny openings called angles in this balloon that allow fluid to leave the eye as more is produced.
If these openings are blocked for any reason, the fluid in the eye builds up and exerts pressure on the optic nerve, causing irreversible damage resulting in vision loss or even blindness.
This condition is called glaucoma, which, according to the National Eye Institute (NEI), is the second leading cause of blindness in the U.S.
There are several different kinds of glaucoma. By far the most common is open angle glaucoma. In this disorder, the fluid can still leave the eye, but not as fast as new fluid is entering, causing increased pressure inside the eye and on the optic nerve.
Having an increase in pressure inside the eye doesn’t automatically mean a diagnosis of glaucoma can be made. Only when the optic nerve is damaged and vision is lost can a person be said to have glaucoma. Glaucoma can also be present without an increase in eye pressure. This is called normal or low tension glaucoma.
There are a few other types of glaucoma. Closed angle glaucoma occurs when the opening for the fluid release is completely blocked. This usually happens quickly, and the symptoms are dramatic, including severe eye pain, nausea and vomiting, and rapid vision loss.
This is a medical emergency and anyone with these symptoms should be seen by an eye specialist immediately.
Risk factors for developing glaucoma include a family history of the disease, being over the age of 60, especially if one is of Mexican descent, and being an African American over the age of 40. The only sign for most people that glaucoma is developing is a gradual loss of side vision over time. If it goes untreated, vision continues to narrow until the only thing that can be seen is what is directly in front of a person. Total blindness can eventually set in.
The only way to detect glaucoma, and the earlier the better, is to have a comprehensive eye exam that includes dilation of the pupils and a test that measures the pressure inside the eye. The NEI recommends an exam like this every two years for those that have any of the above risk factors.
Treatment for glaucoma is fairly simple and effective. It consists of the daily use of prescription eye drops or pills that lower the pressure inside the eye. This treatment doesn’t cure the condition, but it can stop any more damage to the optic nerve, preserving what vision remains.
If drops are not enough to control the pressure, laser surgery may be the next step, followed by conventional surgery if that doesn’t work. Both these options open up the area of the eye where fluid drains to allow easier passage out of the eye.
With glaucoma, once the damage is done, there is no way to restore the vision that is lost. Regular eye exams are a must to help catch this disease early and stop it in its tracks.