For many, a glaucoma diagnosis represents the end of one chapter of life and the start of a new journey. It could mean the end of simple pleasures, like watching 3D movies or applying makeup. It could be a severe as blindness. Unfortunately, it can’t be cured.
Glaucoma is sometimes referred to as the “sneak thief of sight,” because it usually comes with no symptoms, other than slow vision loss. It is common, with more than 200,000 new cases reported in the United States each year.
A recent report from Prevent Blindness, a volunteer eye health and safety organization, anticipated the number of glaucoma cases to almost double in the next 15 years. In 2010, the number of people in the United States with glaucoma was estimated at 2.7 million. That number is expected to grow to 4.3 million by 2032, and then to 5.5 million by 2050.
So what leads to glaucoma?
The Damage Done: How High Eye Pressure Can Cause Glaucoma
Thanks to your optic nerve, your brain perceives sight. The optic nerve is a grouping of nerve fibers that take visual information from the eye to the brain.
Sometimes, the optic nerve is damaged. This is usually due to high eye pressure (also referred to as ocular hypertension) from too much aqueous fluid in the eye. Aqueous fluid is produced by the ciliary body, which is a part of the eye behind the iris. It drains through a part called the trabecular meshwork.
If the ciliary body produces too much aqueous, or if the aqueous doesn’t drain fast enough through the trabecular meshwork, it can lead to high eye pressure.
This usually results in the loss of peripheral vision.
Four Types of Glaucoma and How They Occur
- Chronic or Open Angle Glaucoma. This is the most common type, which is caused when aqueous fluid drains too slowly and pressure builds up in the eye. It has no symptoms and typically occurs in people older than 40. As you age, your trabecular meshwork, which drains the fluid, doesn’t work as well.
- Normal Tension Glaucoma. Normal tension glaucoma is similar to open angle glaucoma, except you experience glaucoma despite normal levels of eye pressure. You might be sensitive to these normal levels, possibly because not enough blood goes to your optic nerve.
- Acute or Angle Closure Glaucoma. This type of glaucoma is rare, and also the most severe. If you are of Asian or American Indian descent, you are at higher risk. Angle closure glaucoma occurs when the drainage system in the eye becomes blocked. Symptoms can include (but are not limited to) severe headaches, nausea and eye pain.
- Secondary Glaucoma. Sometimes glaucoma is a byproduct of another eye condition or disease. For example, uveitis — an inflammation of the part of the eye called the uvea — can cause secondary glaucoma.
Three Treatments to Help You Get Glaucoma under Control
If glaucoma isn’t treated, it can lead to vision loss. While you won’t be able to reverse the damage done, you can prevent further vision loss. You have three treatment options:
- Eye drops. Eye drops can decrease eye pressure by helping the eye either drain aqueous fluid better or produce less fluid.
- Medications. Your doctor can prescribe medication. Some of these can get to be expensive. Glaucoma drugs are classified by their active ingredients, and have names such as prostaglandin analogs, beta blockers, alpha agonists, and carbonic anhydrase inhibitors. Because you might need more than one type of ingredient, combination drugs are available.
- Surgery. Laser treatment can lessen pressure in the eye. However, laser treatment is not permanent. You will probably eventually have to take medications. Non-surgery options are available, too. The most common is called trabeculectomy, which leaks fluid from the eye in a controlled manner.
But it doesn’t stop there. Not only will you want to treat the glaucoma with one of these options, you’ll want to take action.
Four Simple Ways You Can Manage Life with Glaucoma
Get organized. If you’ve been diagnosed with glaucoma, chances are you’ll be taking a few medications. Learn what those medications are, what time you need to take them and how many times a day you need to take them. The more you can build this into your routine, the better your chances of preventing further vision loss
Monitor the disease. The easiest way to prevent further vision loss is to monitor the disease. Those who are 40 or older can schedule an appointment for a dilated eye exam with your eye doctor. If you’ve already been diagnosed, keep in regular contact with your eye doctor. Check in with your eye doctor at least once a year.
Let your doctor know about your medications. Regular checkups are important, not only with your eye doctor, but with all doctors. Make sure to communicate the types of medications you’ve been prescribed, as well as how they make you feel. For example, some medications can leave you fatigued. Let your doctors know, so the medications can help you rather than hurt.
Know what you can and can’t do. If you have a successful surgery, you’ll have a little bump on the sclera (the white part of the eye) under the upper eyelid. This bump is called a bleb. Depending on how recent the surgery, you might want to avoid swimming in a pool, as exposure to the water could cause a bleb infection. Likewise, applying certain kinds of eye cosmetics can irritate the eye, causing problems. Ask your doctor what you can and can’t do, understanding you might have to make a few sacrifices.
Glaucoma may not have a cure, but treatments can help. Organizations like Prevent Blindness have declared January National Glaucoma Awareness Month to educate the public on the disease, including risk factors and treatment options. Don’t let glaucoma sneak off with your sight!