From John Milton to Whoopi Goldberg to Claude Monet, eye diseases affect people of all professions, backgrounds, and social statuses. The older you get, the more likely it is that you will have vision problems. That reality is why people must watch out for eye diseases and respond immediately.
One of the most common conditions to affect the eyes is glaucoma. A lot of people don’t really understand what it is or how it can be treated. Some answers to both questions follow.
What is Glaucoma?
Glaucoma is the result of damage to the optic nerve, which facilitates communication between the eye and the brain. Such damage causes progressive vision loss, and can render the patient permanently blind if left untreated. The two most common types of glaucoma are:
Open Angle Glaucoma – This occurs when the eye is unable to drain enough fluid through its trabecular meshwork, causing an increase in pressure. Although the eye appears normal, its link with the brain slowly deteriorates. Patients with this condition often don’t realize they have a problem until it has reached an advanced state.
Narrow Angle Glaucoma – The angle that separates the cornea from the iris becomes narrower, making it harder for the eye to drain fluid. Fluid thus builds up rapidly, causing sudden vision loss.
Glaucoma typically affects both eyes at once, but has been known to affect only one eye at a time or to be more severe in one eye than in the other. Although it is usually causes high eye pressure, recent research suggests that it can also affect individuals who have normal eye pressure levels.
What Causes Glaucoma?
Any condition that damages the nerves or prevents the eye from draining fluid can cause or contribute to glaucoma. The most common sources of the disease include:
- Genetics – Anyone with a family history of glaucoma, especially in parents or siblings, stands an increased risk of developing the disease.
- Age – The risks of contracting glaucoma increase significantly after age 40, which is why medical authorities recommend periodic eye exams after your fortieth birthday. Younger individuals, however, are not exempt, and glaucoma can develop as early as infancy.
- Medications – Prednisone Intensol and other steroid medications can elevate eye pressure, which may contribute to glaucoma. This is true whether the steroids medications are in the form of injections, pills, inhalers or creams.
- Trauma – Even if it doesn’t blind you directly, physical damage to your eyes increases the risk of developing glaucoma later on.
- Diabetes – Researchers have established a strong correlation between diabetes mellitus and glaucoma. Although they do not yet know why this correlation exists, diabetes is known to damage nerves throughout the body, and this may include the optic nerve. The disease may also prevent the body from properly regulating the flow of blood out of the eye.
- Surgery Gone Wrong – Cataract surgery, cornea transplants, and other eye surgeries may raise the risk of glaucoma if not performed properly.
- Infection – Other eye diseases can damage your optic nerve and lead to glaucoma. As a precaution, be sure to wash and rinse your eyes regularly.
Certain ethnic or racial groups experience glaucoma at a higher rate than others. If you are of Japanese, Irish, sub-Saharan African, Hispanic/Latino, Inuit, Scandinavian, or Russian ancestry, be especially aware of vision loss concerns .
Can I Treat Glaucoma?
Although doctors cannot reverse glaucoma, they can prevent it from causing further damage. This is why it is essential to catch the condition early on. The sooner you act, the better your long-term vision will be. Visit an eye doctor at least once every two years, and watch out for the following symptoms:
- Your eyes appear red or hazy
- You see halos form around light fixtures
- Your vision grows narrow
- You feel pain in your eyes or get headaches
- You frequently vomit and/or feel nauseous
There are a number of treatments available for glaucoma, used based on the nature and severity of the disease. Doctors may prescribe any of the following treatments individually or in combination with each other:
Eye Drops – Regular application of eye drops causes your eyes to produce less fluid on their own, lowering the risk of excessive fluid buildup. They also force more fluid to flow out of your eye. Eye drops can make the eyes red and cause blurred vision and itching. This may cause patients to think their condition is getting worse even as it improves.
Oral Medicine – Carbonic anhydrase inhibitors and other drugs reduce pressure in the eyes. Doctors sometimes prescribe these as a secondary or temporary measure if eye drops do not do the trick.
Laser Surgery – For patients with narrow angle glaucoma, doctors can use a laser to create a hole in the iris, allowing more fluid to drain out. To treat wide angle glaucoma, they use the laser to open up the eye’s trabecular meshwork.
Micro-surgery – Doctors install implants in the eye that allow it to drain fluid more reliably. They can also extract tissue from the trabecular meshwork, opening it up and allowing fluid to drain more effectively.
Glaucoma, Compound Conditions and Treatments
Many of the same risk factors for glaucoma also make someone more likely to develop cataracts. Patients who develop both diseases at once represent a challenge for doctors, as treating one condition may worsen the other. Doctors must thus consider all of their glaucoma and cataract treatment options, choose the right ones, and perform them in the right order to safeguard the patient’s vision.
If a patient’s glaucoma is mild and appears stable, the doctor may first perform cataract surgery. Not only will this get the cataracts out of the way for future glaucoma treatments, but because cataracts put pressure on the drainage angle, it may partially relieve the glaucoma on its own. Likewise, if the cataracts are mild, doctors may begin by treating the glaucoma and perform cataract surgery later on. If both the cataracts and the glaucoma are serious, doctors may use a combination surgery to resolve them both at once.
January is Glaucoma Awareness Month, find out how you can help raise awareness from the Glaucoma Research Foundation.