There are a number of conditions that can cause vision loss, but none are as subtle as glaucoma. Called "the sneak thief of sight," glaucoma can cause irreversible vision loss so gradually that someone might not notice until as much as 40 percent of their vision is gone. It's one of the world's leading causes of blindness.
The Facts About Glaucoma
Glaucoma affects many Americans, and rates are increasing considerably:
- 60 million people worldwide have glaucoma.
- 3 million Americans have glaucoma, 2.7 million of whom have open-angle glaucoma.
- 4.2 million Americans are projected to have glaucoma by 2030, a 58 percent increase in rates of the disease.
Glaucoma is often asymptomatic until serious vision loss has occurred, and they can vary based on the type and stage of the condition. Here are some symptoms to watch for:
- Patchy blind spots in the peripheral vision, in one or both eyes.
- Tunnel vision occurs in advanced stages of the disease.
Acute angle-closure glaucoma is a form that occurs suddenly and can cause blindness as quickly as a day after onset, making it crucial to recognize its symptoms quickly. They include:
- Blurred vision.
- Halos around lights.
- Severe headache.
- Eye pain.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Eye redness.
Causes and Risk Factors
How does glaucoma occur?
Glaucoma is a term for a group of conditions that damage the eye's optic nerve, which comprises the nerve fibers that carry information from the eye to the brain. The reasons for this damage are still being discovered, but it seems to relate to elevated eye pressure.
A fluid called the aqueous humor flows inside of your eye, delivering nutrients, inflating the cornea to protect against damaging elements like dust and pathogens, and balancing intraocular pressure. This maintains the spherical shape of the eyeball and keeps its walls taut. However, when this fluid builds up through overproduction or weak drainage, eye pressure increases.
Doctors aren't sure yet why this increased eye pressure does damage to the optic nerve, but it's found in the most common forms of the disease, such as open-angle glaucoma. Fluid drainage becomes blocked over a long period of time, which seems to cause this damage. In most forms, this is so gradual that it's not noticeable until significant damage has occurred.
Some forms of glaucoma do not involve this increased pressure, and in one form (acute angle-closure glaucoma), the blockage happens so suddenly it's a medical emergency. But in the most common forms, pressure builds gradually and damage occurs slowly.
Who's at risk?
The highest risk factor for glaucoma is high intraocular pressure. Other glaucoma risk factors are largely genetic or age-based, although some happen because of preexisting damage:
- Age: Being over age 60.
- Racial background: black, Asian, or Hispanic ancestry.
- A family history of glaucoma.
- Presence of certain medical conditions: diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, or sickle cell anemia.
- Eye condition: Being extremely nearsighted or farsighted.
- Eye shape: Having corneas that are thin in the center.
- Eye history: Previous eye injuries or certain eye surgeries.
- Medications: Long-term use of corticosteroid medications such as eye drops.
Treatment and Prevention
Glaucoma has no cure, so early detection and slowing the progression of the disease is vital to managing it. This is especially important when you have a family history with glaucoma or are a member of groups with an increased prevalence of the condition. Here's some ways to detect and prevent glaucoma:
Regular dilated eye examinations: Get comprehensive eye exams before significant damage occurs. The American Academy of Ophthamology recommends the following schedule based on your age, although if you are high-risk for glaucoma you may need more frequent exams:
- Under 40 years old: every 5 to 10 years.
- 40 to 54 years old: every 2 to 4 years.
- 55 to 64 years old: every 1 to 3 years.
- 65 and above: every 1 to 2 years.
Prescription eyedrops: If you have a high risk of developing glaucoma, ask your doctor about glaucoma eye drops that help reduce intraocular pressure.
Know your family's eye history: A family history of glaucoma will require more frequent screening.
Exercise: Regular exercise may help reduce your risk of glaucoma, as conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure can be factors.
Eye protection: Eye injuries can cause glaucoma later. Wear eye protection while using tools, playing contact sports, or during any physical activity where your eyes may be injured.