Glaucoma refers to a group of ocular (eye) disorders that can lead to damage to the optic nerve. The optic nerve is located in the retina (the back of the eye) and is a group of nerve cells that connects your eye to your brain. Glaucoma can cause damage to the nerve cells, leading to holes or “blind spots” in your vision. If left untreated, blindness can result if all of the nerve cells that make up the optic nerve are destroyed.
Glaucoma is often referred to as the “sneak thief of vision” because there are usually no symptoms in the early stages of the disease. Without regular eye health examinations, it can go undetected and cause irreversible damage to your vision. In later stages of glaucoma, vision can be reduced to “tunnel vision” and eventually, total blindness.
What causes glaucoma? Usually, it occurs when fluid in the eye builds up, causing the intraocular pressure within the eye to increase to a level that can damage the optic nerve, though high intraocular pressure is not the only cause of this disease. In some glaucoma patients, intraocular pressure is at a normal range. What we do know, however, is that glaucoma is a multi-factorial disease and certain risk factors increase the likelihood of vision loss.
Glaucoma can’t be prevented, but it can be controlled if diagnosed early. Know your risk factors and follow up with your eye care professional!
Glaucoma is often associated with elevated pressure within the eye and it is this elevated eye pressure that causes damage to the optic nerve. It is important to realize that sometimes glaucoma can occur even when the pressure within the eye is measured at normal levels. In these cases, the optic nerve may be damaged due to poor blood flow. It is also important to know that not everyone with elevated intraocular pressure develops glaucoma.
Glaucoma can affect any age, including children, but it is more common in people over the age of 50.
Immediate family history (parents, grandparents, siblings) of glaucoma increases your risk of developing the disease.
African Americans risk for developing glaucoma is four to five times greater than others and often at an earlier age.
People who have suspicious looking optic nerve appearance are at higher risk of developing glaucoma in their lifetime. This includes large or asymmetrical “cup-to-disc” ratio or loss of optic nerve rim tissue. During an eye examination, your eye doctor can compare the size of the “rim” of the optic nerve (where the neurons leave the eye to become the nerve) and the “cup” (the hole in the center of the optic nerve head. The larger the cup is in relation to the rim size, the greater the chance of developing glaucoma.
Diabetes, hypertension, history of eye trauma, previous eye surgery or long term steroid use can also contribute to higher risk of glaucoma.
People who are highly myopic (generally > 6 diopters of nearsightedness) and/or thin corneas are believed to be at higher risk for glaucoma. People who are very nearsighted often have longer than average eye length and other structural features that can make the optic nerve more susceptible to damage and can result in glaucoma.
If you have one or more of the risk factors associated with the development of glaucoma, your eye care professional may require more frequent visits to monitor your vision more closely. Tests such as visual field, GDX or OCT (measurement of the retinal nerve fiber layer), tonometry (measures the intraocular pressure) and gonioscopy (allow s the doctor to view the drainage structures of the eye), are all special testing that may be required if it is determined that you are in a high risk group for developing glaucoma.
If you develop glaucoma, some type of treatment will be administered based on the type of glaucoma that you have. Typically, drops are prescribed at first and are extremely successful. For a small group of patients, medical (drop) therapy will not be adequate. In these cases, surgical options will be explored.
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