Glaucoma is a progressive eye disease in which the optic nerve, which carries information from the eye to the brain, is slowly damaged. When damage to the optic nerve occurs, it results in permanent and irreversible vision loss. However, this vision loss occurs slowly and affects the peripheral vision first. Many people do not realize changes from glaucoma have occurred until significant vision has been lost, which is why glaucoma is commonly referred to as the “silent eye disease.” While glaucoma has the potential to be a blinding condition, it is treatable, and vision loss can be prevented by working closely with your eye doctor.
What Causes Glaucoma?
The diagnosis of glaucoma is made when measurable damage occurs to the optic nerve. Most of the time, this damage is caused by increased intraocular pressure. Intraocular pressure is a measure of the fluid produced inside the eye. The fluid, also called aqueous, provide nutrients to the structures inside the eye and is a vital portion of ocular health. However, if too much aqueous is being produced, or if not enough fluid is being drained, the pressure inside the eye can rise and can begin pressing on the optic nerve. If the pressure inside the eye remains elevated for too long, compressive damage to the optic nerve can result in vision loss. This is the hallmark sign of glaucoma.
Many people who have been diagnosed with glaucoma as the question, “Why did I develop this disease?” Most of the time, there is a not a specific answer to that question. We know that family history plays a role in the development of glaucoma. Race and age are also factors to be considered. Unfortunately, many cases of primary glaucoma are simply “bad luck.” Other times, glaucoma can be caused by other ocular problems, such as injuries, inflammation, or even atypical eye anatomy. In these cases, the underlying cause of glaucoma can be identified by an eye care provider, and these causes can affect the way that glaucoma is treated and managed.
Diagnosing and Treating Glaucoma
Because vision loss from glaucoma can occur slowly and painlessly, it is important to have regular eye exams to ensure that no silent damage is occurring to the optic nerve. The sooner glaucoma is identified and diagnosed, the less likely it is for vision loss to occur. The first warning signs of glaucoma can be seen during a routine eye exam, which includes optic nerve evaluation and measuring intraocular pressure. If a doctor suspects that you may have glaucoma, they will run a series of additional tests to confirm the diagnosis. These tests may include a Visual Field analysis, which measures peripheral vision to determine if any loss due to glaucoma has occurred, or an Optical Coherence Tomography, which measures the retinal tissue around the optic nerve and can indicate if there has been damage leading to loss of tissue.
If exam findings and additional tests confirm glaucoma, then treatment will be initiated. The first line of treatment for glaucoma is topical medications that lower the pressure inside the eye and reduce the risk of compressive damage to the optic nerve. Sometimes multiple medications are required. If these medications do not adequately lower the pressure inside the eye, and damage from glaucoma continues to occur, then more specialized treatment options like laser procedures or glaucoma surgeries may be an option.
While glaucoma can be a scary disease, it is treatable and vision loss can be prevented. To ensure that you or a loved is not at risk for vision loss due to glaucoma, remember to have the health of your eyes evaluated annually.