Clarity In Focus

Shedding Light On Glaucoma

by Samantha Ward, OD, FAAO // January - February - March 2024

January marks National Glaucoma Awareness Month, shedding light on the leading cause of irreversible blindness. As we step into 2024, let’s raise awareness about this silent but sight-stealing disease. Aptly nicknamed “the sneak thief of sight,” glaucoma often inflicts damage and vision loss without any noticeable symptoms. Sadly, the vision loss it causes is permanent, affecting over 3 million Americans, with approximately 120,000 blinded by glaucoma in the United States and an estimated 4.5 million worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

Glaucoma encompasses a group of eye diseases that damage the optic nerve, the cable that transports visual information from the eye to the brain. The most prevalent types of glaucoma gradually damage the optic nerve over time without causing pain, with up to 40% of vision loss occurring before it becomes apparent. Two primary types are primary open angle glaucoma (POAG) and angle-closure glaucoma, both characterized by elevated eye pressure. POAG can even occur with normal eye pressure, posing challenges in diagnosis and management. Other forms of glaucoma may arise from underlying diseases.

Vision loss from glaucoma typically begins with peripheral or side vision lost first, often going unnoticed since it may affect one eye more than the other. Regular eye check-ups are the best defense against glaucoma, as signs can be detected during a comprehensive eye examination. A non-invasive instrument that causes no discomfort measures eye pressure, and the optic nerve is evaluated through photographs and direct examination. Early detection is crucial, and additional testing can determine the level of risk or the need for treatment.

Treatment for glaucoma, when diagnosed early, is generally straightforward. Many individuals manage the condition with one or two daily eye drops that maintain safe eye pressure and prevent glaucoma progression. In more advanced cases, surgical interventions may be necessary.

Screening for glaucoma is especially vital for those with risk factors such as age over 60, a family history, high near-sightedness or far-sightedness, diabetes, sleep apnea, and African American or Hispanic heritage. Diabetes can cause microvascular changes inside the eye, sleep apnea reduces blood flow to the optic nerve, and unique ocular anatomy in those with extreme near-sightedness or far-sightedness can make the optic nerve more susceptible to glaucoma. It is a significant cause of blindness in African Americans, being six to eight times more common in this population compared to Caucasians, and it is also more prevalent among Hispanic individuals.

For those diagnosed with glaucoma, spreading awareness to family members is essential, so be sure to encourage them to schedule their screening. While treatments can slow down the disease’s progression, there is no cure, emphasizing the importance of early detection through eye exams.

The key takeaways about glaucoma are that you will not know you have it as there are no symptoms and currently, there is no cure. Thus, early detection becomes paramount. Diagnosis relies on assessing eye pressure and examining optic nerves, making regular eye exams crucial. Although treatments can slow the progression of glaucoma, they cannot reverse optic nerve damage. Therefore, proactive eye care, including routine examinations, is vital in maintaining eye health. As we step into 2024, prioritize your eye health by scheduling an overdue eye exam – your vision will surely thank you.

Samantha Ward, OD, FAAO

McPherson Family Eye Care