Noyes News and Events

January 20, 2017

January is National Glaucoma Awareness Month

January is National Glaucoma Awareness Month, an important time to spread the word about this sight-stealing disease.  According to the Glaucoma Research Foundation, more than 3 million people in the United States have glaucoma.  The National Eye Institute projects this number will reach 4.2 million by 2030, a 58 percent increase.  Glaucoma is the leading cause of preventable blindness.  It is called “the sneak thief of sight” since there are no symptoms and once vision is lost, it is permanent.  As much as 40% of vision can be lost without a person noticing.

Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases that gradually steal sight without warning.  Although the most common forms affect middle-aged and the elderly, glaucoma can affect people of all ages.  The eye is similar to a water balloon with a string attached. It consists of an outer covering that is full of fluid that gives it a round shape. The string is the optic nerve which leaves the back of the eye, carrying information to the brain. The brain decodes that information into images that we understand as sight. There are tiny openings called angles in this balloon that allow fluid to leave the eye as more is produced.

If these openings are blocked for any reason, the fluid in the eye builds up and exerts pressure on the optic nerve, causing irreversible damage resulting in vision loss or even blindness. This condition is called glaucoma.  There are several different kinds of glaucoma. By far the most common is open angle glaucoma. In this disorder, the fluid can still leave the eye but the drainage canals are slowly clogging over time causing increased pressure inside the eye and on the optic nerve. It is this pressure on the optic nerve that causes irreversible loss of vision.

Glaucoma can also be present without an increase in eye pressure. This is called normal or low tension glaucoma. In normal-tension glaucoma, the optic nerve is damaged even though the eye pressure is not very high.  Experts still do not know some people’s optic nerves are damaged even though they have almost normal pressure levels.

One other type of glaucoma is acute glaucoma also known as angle closure glaucoma.   Angle closure glaucoma is caused by blocked drainage canals, resulting in a sudden rise in intraocular (within the eye) pressure.   This usually happens quickly, and the symptoms are dramatic, including severe eye pain, nausea and vomiting, and rapid vision loss. This is a medical emergency and demands immediate medical attention by an eye specialist.

The Glaucoma Research Foundation indicates the following groups of people are at risk for glaucoma:

  • Those of African, Asian, or Hispanic descent

  • People over 60

  • Family members of those already diagnosed

  • Diabetics

  • People who are severely nearsighted

Early detection, through regular and complete eye exams, is the key to protecting your vision from damage caused by glaucoma.  A complete eye exam includes five common tests to detect glaucoma.  Those tests looks at inner eye pressure, the shape and color of the optic nerve, the complete field of vision, the angle in the eye where the iris meets the cornea, and the thickness of the cornea.  It is important to have your eyes examined regularly.   Your eyes should be tested:

  • Before age 40, every two to four years

  • From age 40 to 54, every one to three years

  • From age 55 to 64, every one to two years

  • After age 65, every six to twelve months

Note:  Anyone with high risk factors should be tested every year or two after age 35.  Check with your eye specialist to determine the best timing for you.

Glaucoma can be treated with eye drops, pills, laser surgery, traditional surgery or a combination of these methods. The goal of any treatment is to prevent loss of vision, as vision loss from glaucoma is irreversible. The good news is that glaucoma can be managed if detected early, and that with medical and/or surgical treatment, most people with glaucoma will not lose their sight.

If you would like to learn more about glaucoma, go to:

The Glaucoma Foundation - https://www.glaucomafoundation.org

The National Eye Institute - https://nei.nih.gov/

Lorraine Wichtowski is a community health educator at Noyes Health in Dansville.  If you have questions or suggestions for future articles she can be reached at lwichtowski@noyeshealth.org or 585-335-4327.