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Eye Diseases: Glaucoma

Glaucoma is the second-leading cause of blindness in the U.S. affecting an estimated three million Americans, with 120,000 people becoming blind due to the condition. Glaucoma is often called the “silent thief of sight” because, in the early stages of the disease, there are no signs or symptoms that anything is wrong. Glaucoma is an increase in the intraocular pressure of the eyes that causes damage to the optic nerve. This can lead to a decrease in peripheral vision and eventually blindness.

Glaucoma’s High Risk Groups

  • People over the age of 60
  • African-Americans (It’s 6 to 8 times more common than in Caucasians)
  • Family members of those already diagnosed
  • Diabetics
  • People who are severely nearsighted

Two Types of Glaucoma

There are two major types of glaucoma–chronic or open-angle and acute closed-angle glaucoma. Chronic glaucoma has no symptoms or signs to alert you that something is wrong. Approximately half of the Americans with chronic glaucoma don’t know they have it. The increase in pressure gradually reduces peripheral vision. Unfortunately, by the time you notice this change, the damage has already been done. If this pressure remains high, the damage to your vision will continue until tunnel vision develops. This vision loss is caused by damage to the optic nerve that carries images from the eye to the brain. Once this damage has been done, it cannot be repaired. That is why it is so important to have regular eye exams in which you are screened for glaucoma.

While chronic glaucoma has no apparent signs or symptoms, acute closed-angle glaucoma has sudden symptoms that let you know something is wrong. Symptoms may include: eye pain, haloes around lights, red eyes, headaches, vision loss and dilated pupils. These symptoms may last for only a few hours and then disappear, only to return again. Each attack takes with it a part of your vision. Anyone experiencing these symptoms should see their eye care professional immediately.

Treatment

While there is no cure for glaucoma, there are medications and surgery that can halt further vision loss. Early detection is vital to stopping the progress of the disease. Since glaucoma is a chronic condition, once detected, it must be monitored for life. Early diagnosis is the first step to preserving your vision.

There are a variety of medications currently in use to treat glaucoma. Your eye care professional may prescribe a single or a combination of medications that are intended to reduce elevated intraocular pressure and prevent further damage to the optic nerve. For many people prescription eye drops—which help maintain the pressure in the eyes at a healthy level—are an important part of the treatment routine.

Surgery for Glaucoma

In addition to medication, there is a surgical procedure for patients with open-angle or chronic glaucoma. Selective laser trabeculoplasty (SLT) is a specially designed laser that works by using a specific wavelength to irradiate and target only specific cells, which then trigger a reduction in intraocular pressure. The laser beam bypasses surrounding tissue leaving it undamaged by the light. This is why SLT surgery can be repeated several times, such as two times per year as opposed to two treatments per lifetime with the previous surgical method.

Regular eye exams are the best way to monitor the health of your eyes and make sure your treatments are having the desired results. Talk to your eye care professional about what is best for you and your vision.