Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases that cause damage to the optic nerve. The optic nerve is the part of the eye that carries the images we see to the brain. Glaucoma is often called the silent thief of sight, gradually stealing vision without warning, and often without symptoms. If left untreated, glaucoma can lead to blindness. It was once thought that elevated pressure inside the eye was the main cause of optic nerve damage. Although elevated pressure is clearly a risk factor, we now know that other factors must also be involved, because even people with normal pressure, can experience vision loss from glaucoma.
Glaucoma is a group of diseases that can damage the eye’s optic nerve and result in vision loss and blindness. Glaucoma occurs when the normal fluid pressure inside the eyes slowly rises. However, with early treatment, you can often protect your eyes against serious vision loss.
The optic nerve is a bundle of more than 1 million nerve fibers. It connects the retina to the brain. (See diagram below.) The retina is the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye. A healthy optic nerve is necessary for good vision. What are some other forms of glaucoma? Open-angle glaucoma is the most common form. Some people have other types of the disease.
Low-tension or normal-tension glaucoma. Optic nerve damage and narrowed side vision occur in people with normal eye pressure. Lowering eye pressure at least 30 percent through medicines slows the disease in some people. Glaucoma may worsen in others despite low pressures. A comprehensive medical history is important in identifying other potential risk factors, such as low blood pressure, that contribute to low-tension glaucoma. If no risk factors are identified, the treatment options for low-tension glaucoma are the same as for open-angle glaucoma.
Angle-closure glaucoma. The fluid at the front of the eye cannot reach the angle and leave the eye. The angle gets blocked by part of the iris. People with this type of glaucoma have a sudden increase in eye pressure. Symptoms include severe pain and nausea, as well as redness of the eye and blurred vision. If you have these symptoms, you need to seek treatment immediately. This is a medical emergency. If your doctor is unavailable, go to the nearest hospital or clinic. Without treatment to improve the flow of fluid, the eye can become blind in as few as one or two days. Usually, prompt laser surgery and medicines can clear the blockage and protect sight.
Congenital glaucoma. Children are born with a defect in the angle of the eye that slows the normal drainage of fluid. These children usually have obvious symptoms, such as cloudy eyes, sensitivity to light, and excessive tearing. Conventional surgery typically is the suggested treatment, because medicines may have unknown effects in infants and be difficult to administer. Surgery is safe and effective. If surgery is done promptly, these children usually have an excellent chance of having good vision.
Secondary glaucomas. These can develop as complications of other medical conditions. These types of glaucomas are sometimes associated with eye surgery or advanced cataracts, eye injuries, certain eye tumors, or uveitis (eye inflammation). Pigmentary glaucoma occurs when pigment from the iris flakes off and blocks the meshwork, slowing fluid drainage. A severe form, called neovascular glaucoma, is linked to diabetes. Corticosteroid drugs used to treat eye inflammations and other diseases can trigger glaucoma in some people. Treatment includes medicines, laser surgery, or conventional surgery.
In the front of the eye is a space called the anterior chamber. A clear fluid flows continuously in and out of the chamber and nourishes nearby tissues. The fluid leaves the chamber at the open angle where the cornea and iris meet. (See diagram below.) When the fluid reaches the angle, it flows through a spongy meshwork, like a drain, and leaves the eye. Sometimes, when the fluid reaches the angle, it passes too slowly through the meshwork drain. As the fluid builds up, the pressure inside the eye rises to a level that may damage the optic nerve. When the optic nerve is damaged from increased pressure, open-angle glaucoma–and vision loss–may result. That’s why controlling pressure inside the eye is important.
Not necessarily. Increased eye pressure means you are at risk for glaucoma, but does not mean you have the disease. A person has glaucoma only if the optic nerve is damaged. If you have increased eye pressure but no damage to the optic nerve, you do not have glaucoma. However, you are at risk. Follow the advice of your eye care professional.
Not necessarily. Not every person with increased eye pressure will develop glaucoma. Some people can tolerate higher eye pressure better than others. Also, a certain level of eye pressure may be high for one person but normal for another. Whether you develop glaucoma depends on the level of pressure your optic nerve can tolerate without being damaged. This level is different for each person. That’s why a comprehensive dilated eye exam is very important. It can help your eye care professional determine what level of eye pressure is normal for you.
Yes. Glaucoma can develop without increased eye pressure. This form of glaucoma is called low-tension or normal-tension glaucoma. It is not as common as open-angle glaucoma.
Anyone can develop glaucoma. Some people are at higher risk than others. They include:
- African Americans over age 40.
- Everyone over age 60, especially Mexican Americans.
- People with a family history of glaucoma.
Among African Americans, studies show that glaucoma is:
- Five times more likely to occur in African Americans than in Caucasians.
- About four times more likely to cause blindness in African Americans than in Caucasians.
- Fifteen times more likely to cause blindness in African Americans between the ages of 45-64 than in Caucasians of the same age group.
A comprehensive dilated eye exam can reveal more risk factors, such as high eye pressure, thinness of the cornea, and abnormal optic nerve anatomy. In some people with certain combinations of these high-risk factors, medicines in the form of eyedrops reduce the risk of developing glaucoma by about half.
Medicare covers an annual comprehensive dilated eye exam for some people at high risk for glaucoma.
Studies have shown that the early detection and treatment of glaucoma, before it causes major vision loss, is the best way to control the disease. So, if you fall into one of the high-risk groups for the disease, make sure to have your eyes examined through dilated pupils every one to two years by an eye care professional.
If you are being treated for glaucoma, be sure to take your glaucoma medicine every day. See your eye care professional regularly.
You also can help protect the vision of family members and friends who may be at high risk for glaucoma–African Americans over age 40; everyone over age 60, especially Mexican Americans; and people with a family history of the disease. Encourage them to have a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once every two years. Remember: Lowering eye pressure in glaucoma’s early stages slows progression of the disease and helps save vision.
At first, there are no symptoms. Vision stays normal, and there is no pain. However, as the disease progresses, a person with glaucoma may notice his or her side vision gradually failing. That is, objects in front may still be seen clearly, but objects to the side may be missed. As glaucoma remains untreated, people may miss objects to the side and out of the corner of their eye. Without treatment, people with glaucoma will slowly lose their peripheral (side) vision. They seem to be looking through a tunnel. Over time, straight-ahead vision may decrease until no vision remains. Glaucoma can develop in one or both eyes.
- Visual acuity test: This eye chart test measures how well you see at various distances. A tonometer measures pressure inside the eye to detect glaucoma.
- Visual field test: This test measures your side (peripheral) vision. It helps your eye care professional tell if you have lost side vision, a sign of glaucoma.
- Dilated eye exam: Drops are placed in your eyes to widen, or dilate, the pupils. Your eye care professional uses a special magnifying lens to examine your retina and optic nerve for signs of damage and other eye problems. After the exam, your close-up vision may remain blurred for several hours.
- Tonometry: An instrument (right) measures the pressure inside the eye. Numbing drops may be applied to your eye for this test.
- Pachymetry: A numbing drop is applied to your eye. Your eye care professional uses an ultrasonic wave instrument to measure the thickness of your cornea.