Stay in the Clear - How to treat and prevent glaucoma

Glaucoma is a subtle thief

Glaucoma is a sneaky thief of vision, but it can be treated

By K.H. Queen


Glaucoma—one is one of the leading causes of blindness in the world. It —steals your eyesight so subtly that you could have it for years and not know you have significant vision loss. The good news is —once a doctor diagnoses the problem, glaucoma can be treated, says Dr. Samuel N. Garrett of Virginia Beach Eye Center.

Glaucoma is an increase in fluid pressure in the eye, caused when fluid does not leave the eye, that damages the optic nerve. Keep reading to find out why you should be concerned, how to detect glaucoma and how to treat it if you find out you have it.. 

Getting an eye exam, especially if you’ve never had one, is a good first step. An ophthalmologist will measure your eye pressure and determine if it’s in the normal range—around 10 for children, 15 for younger adults, 20 for older adults, Garrett says.

One study by the National Institutes of Health showed that an eye pressure of 24, even with no evidence of current optic nerve damage, indicates a risk of damage of 13 percent over the next five years, Garrett says. About 2.3 million Americans are known to suffer from glaucoma, and it’s estimated that another 2 million have the disease and don’t know it, the NIH says.

Who’s at risk? Overall, you have a one in 100 chance of getting glaucoma, Garrett says. That chance increases as you grow older. If you’re African American, your risk rises to two to four in 100. If your mother, father, brother, sister or child has glaucoma, your risk rises to one in 10.

Now the symptoms. For open angle glaucoma, which accounts for most cases, there are almost no early symptoms, Garrett says. “That’s the scary part of glaucoma,” he says. “You can have glaucoma for many, many years and have a pressure of 30 and never know it until it’s almost game over.”

Early on, you’ll lose peripheral vision—imagine a big circle and you lose vision around the edges. Later, you may lose central vision, have trouble seeing off to the side, experience blurred vision or loss of night vision, Garrett says. “At that point you have bad optic nerve damage,” he says. The exception to this lack of early symptoms is what’s called angle closure glaucoma—a rare but devastating and fast-progressing form of the condition,
Garrett says. Symptoms include eye pain, redness, fuzzy vision, haloes around light, nausea and vomiting, Garrett says. If this happens to you, go to your eye doctor immediately, he says. “Those symptoms are very serious and indicate that eye pressure has gone up really high, as high as 70,” he says. “That can take vision away very quickly, even over the course of a day. This is one of the true ophthalmologic emergencies.” Unfortunately those symptoms can be misdiagnosed and mistreated in the emergency room, he says, where doctors might focus first on the vomiting instead of the eye pain.

People at risk for glaucoma should get eye exams every two years, especially African Americans over age 40, people over 60, especially Hispanics and anyone with a family history of the disease, the NIH says.

There are three methods of treatment for glaucoma, Garrett says. Five different classes of drops work to lower eye pressure. Another option is laser surgery—one kind seeks to turn off the production of fluid going into the eye, he says. Another surgery creates a kind of trap door that allows fluid to more easily leave the eye.

Although glaucoma’s progress can be stopped with treatment, the disease’s damage can’t be reversed, Garrett says.

Elsewhere in the world where people often can’t get access to care, glaucoma causes sufferers to go blind, he says. “Here (in the United States) where there’s access for care, it doesn’t make sense not to check for glaucoma,” Garrett says. “It’s a pretty simple test. Treatment is pretty simple. Most people who have it just have to put drops in their eye.”

But even in the United States, people are going blind because they don’t get eye exams, don’t get follow-up care or aren’t following their eye doctors’ instructions, Garrett says.

“Most of the time we consider glaucoma to be preventable blindness,” he says. “If you’re willing to take the time and do what is required, you don’t have to go blind from glaucoma.”