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What Is Glaucoma: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention?

May 20, 2020

An estimated 80 million people are affected by glaucoma worldwide. And while glaucoma eye treatment is readily available, those who don't seek it out risk going blind. Even then, some 10% of people who receive treatment still suffer vision loss.

This is an eye condition that can cause real damage, but when you know the symptoms and with regular eye exam with your doctor, you can get the glaucoma eye treatment you need.

What Is Glaucoma?

So what is glaucoma? It’s a term that refers to several different eye conditions, all of which damage the optic nerve. This is the nerve found at the back of the eye that transmits visual data from the eye to the brain, allowing you to see. Typically the damage done to the optic nerve is caused by pressure placed on the nerve.

It’s one of the leading causes of blindness in elderly people, and it’s also one of the best examples of why regular eye check-ups are important. When spotted early, it can be treated. When left untreated, it can cause permanent blindness.

glaucoma symptoms.

How Common Is Glaucoma?

Glaucoma is the second leading cause of irreversible blindness worldwide. In the United States, an estimated 3 million people suffer from the condition. As many as half of people with glaucoma don’t know they have it, as early signs of glaucoma may not be noticeable to patients. By the time symptoms are recognized by the individual, substantial irreversible vision loss may have occurred.

Types of Glaucoma

There are several kinds of glaucoma, the most common being open-angle glaucoma. Angle-closure glaucoma is also somewhat common but makes up less than 20% of total glaucoma cases. This can manifest as acute angle-closure glaucoma, a painful condition that onsets rather quickly. There are also other subtypes of glaucoma, including pigmentary glaucoma and pseudoexfoliation glaucoma, among others.

To understand the differences between the different types of glaucoma, you must first understand that the eye is filled with a liquid known as aqueous humor. This holds the shape of your eye and feeds the internal components of the eye so they can function properly. Your body is always producing new aqueous humor to keep the eye healthy and draining out the old.

Open-Angle Glaucoma

With open-angle glaucoma, the structures that let this fluid drain out of the eye are damaged. Specifically, the trabecular meshwork that assists with drainage resists against outflow. This causes pressure to build inside the eye, which damages the optic nerve. The structures are in the right position, and the drainage canals aren't blocked; however, they have stopped functioning normally.

Narrow-Angle Glaucoma

The "angle" refers to the area between the iris and the cornea. With narrow-angle glaucoma, the iris is pushed directly against the cornea, impeding drainage. The meshwork and the uveoscleral drain both become blocked, which stops drainage completely. This creates even more extreme intraocular pressure.

Less Common Types of Glaucoma

Normal-tension glaucoma

Sometimes referred to as low tension glaucoma, this subtype of glaucoma results in optic nerve damage despite intraocular pressure being in the normal range.

Pigmentary glaucoma

Pigmentary glaucoma occurs when the iris releases pigment into the eye, and this pigment gets trapped in the drainage system of the eye. Intraocular pressure rises, as a result, causing damage to the optic nerve.

Pseudoexfoliation glaucoma

In pseudoexfoliation glaucoma, the eye produces a protein-like material, which deposits on various structures, including the drainage system for the eye. This material impedes the outflow of aqueous humor, causing a rise in intraocular pressure and subsequent damage to the optic nerve.

what is glaucoma.

Glaucoma Symptoms

Open-angle glaucoma symptoms are subtle in the early stages. Most people who have the problem aren't even aware of it until it becomes so bad that vision is impaired. Usually, the first thing people notice is that peripheral vision is affected, and people may begin seeing rainbow-colored halos around sources of bright light. The condition worsens slowly, which just goes to show how important, regular eye check-ups are.

Other possible symptoms of glaucoma include:

  • Red-eye
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Intense pain in the eye
  • Blurry vision

If you experience any of these symptoms you may be developing glaucoma. If you experience intense pain and vision loss you should visit your eye doctor or the emergency room immediately. If the symptoms are intermittent, you must arrange a check-up as soon as possible.

Glaucoma Causes

So, how do you get glaucoma anyways? When it comes to the causes of glaucoma, the main factor to consider is age. Young people do experience this condition, but it happens mostly to people over the age of 40.

Glaucoma is caused by a multitude of factors coming together. Your eye doctor will be able to discuss your specific risk factors to determine your predisposition.

Glaucoma Risk Factors

You are more likely to experience glaucoma eye disease if you fit any of the following criteria:

  • You are farsighted or nearsighted
  • You already have high eye pressure
  • You take steroid medications
  • You have diabetes
  • You have a family member who suffers from glaucoma
  • You have heart disease
  • You have high blood pressure

It's hard to know whether you have the condition without a regular eye check-up. Being aware of these contributing factors helps you remain vigilant about your eye health!

Glaucoma Diagnosis

Many people believe that an eye pressure screening is sufficient to diagnose glaucoma; that’s simply not the case. Glaucoma is diagnosed with a comprehensive eye examination and often requires additional testing, including:

  • an inspection of your eyes’ drainage system
  • an examination of your optic nerve
  • a test of your peripheral vision
  • a computerized measurement of your optic nerve fibers
  • a measurement of your corneal thickness

Serial testing is often necessary over several months or years before a diagnosis can be made.

Glaucoma Treatment and Medication Options

angle closure glaucoma

While there is no glaucoma cure, there are several treatment options available, including glaucoma eye drops, laser treatment for glaucoma, and glaucoma surgery. Doctors know how to treat glaucoma once it is identified, but this depends on you visiting your eye doctor for a diagnosis. Glaucoma treatment can't reverse the damage already done, but it can stop or slow vision loss and potentially prevent it from happening to your other eye.

For this reason, it's always best to regularly see your doctor for tests, especially if you know you are vulnerable. Treatment for glaucoma can generally take the form of medication or surgery.

Eye Drops

Topical medication, which comes in the form of prescription eye drops, reduces the pressure in your eye, protecting the optic nerve and preserving vision. In many cases, glaucoma sufferers need to use eye drops for the rest of their lives.

Oral Medication

Glaucoma medication is occasionally taken by mouth, but this is often reserved for periods of exceptionally high intraocular pressure.

Laser Surgery

Glaucoma laser surgery is also commonly used, and while effective in most people, it typically needs to be repeated at least every five years. It also may diminish in efficacy the more times it’s repeated.

Surgery

Treatment can also take the form of minimally-invasive surgery and trabecular and shunt surgery. Trabecular and shunt surgery reduces the need for medication and creates new drainage channels for the fluid in the eye. Minimally invasive surgery involves making small incisions that cause very little trauma to the eye, allowing the aqueous humor to drain.

Glaucoma Prevention Tips

While glaucoma can’t be prevented per se, it can be caught early, so that vision loss is minimized. Here are some steps to maximize your chances of catching glaucoma:

  • Have regular eye examinations. If you’re between the ages of 18-65, have your eyes examined at least every couple of years. After the age of 65, get an eye exam at least annually. Your doctor may recommend even more frequent examinations if you have certain risk factors.
  • Learn your family history, and share it with your eye care professional.
  • Avoid trauma to the eyes.
  • Avoid the use of steroid medications if possible.
  • Get any ocular inflammation treated promptly before it causes any complications.
  • Follow your doctor’s instructions.

Conclusion

Glaucoma is a life-changing condition, but when caught early, the damage it does can be minimized and controlled.

At the Kraff Eye Institute, we have vast experience successfully treating glaucoma and achieving the best outcomes for our patients. We offer regular check-ups to ensure your eyes are in optimal health and our range of treatments will ensure you retain your vision for years to come.

Schedule your appointment by calling our office at (312) 444-1111. We look forward to hearing from you!

FAQ

How does marijuana help glaucoma?

Expand F.A.Q.

This is a controversial topic and not one on which everyone agrees. Limited research suggests that marijuana can reduce pressure in the eye, and stop the progression of glaucoma temporarily.

Can glaucoma be cured?

Expand F.A.Q.

No, there is no cure for glaucoma yet. Medication and surgery can stop the loss of vision, but cannot reverse the effects of the condition.

Is glaucoma hereditary?

Expand F.A.Q.

It can be. Open-angle glaucoma is hereditary, so if an immediate family member suffers from the condition, you are more likely to experience it in later life too. Having a family history of glaucoma can increase your chances of developing it four times over.

What does glaucoma look like?

Expand F.A.Q.

Glaucoma is defined by the pressure placed on the optic nerve. A person with glaucoma may have blurred vision, see glares, or feel like they need more light to see.

What is the first sign of glaucoma?

Expand F.A.Q.

The first sign of glaucoma is typically blurred vision or seeing rainbow-colored halos around sources of bright light.

What age do you usually get glaucoma?

Expand F.A.Q.

Most people get glaucoma over the age of 40.

Dr. Colman R. Kraff

Committed to advancing new technologies in the field of ophthalmology, Dr. Colman Kraff helped to pioneer laser vision correction. In February of 1991, as part of a five-site, U.S., FDA clinical trial team, Dr. Kraff successfully performed the first excimer laser procedures in the Chicagoland area using the VISX Excimer Laser.

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