What comes to mind when you think of your eyes? Perhaps it’s their color or the way eyes tend to express what we’re feeling. If you’re experiencing some trouble with your vision, your thoughts might drift toward what the possible causes are. There are numerous conditions of the eye that could affect us at any point in our lives. Glaucoma is one such condition and is the leading cause of blindness for people over 60 years old; though it can afflict individuals of all ages.
Glaucoma is a disease which affects the eye’s optic nerve. The optic nerve is surrounded by clear fluid called “aqueous,” which keeps the front portion of the eye lubricated and inflated. Aqueous is continuously drained through “drainage angles,” which act as ducts to move old fluid out and allow new aqueous to fill the front of the eye. Patients with glaucoma have drainage angles which do not function properly, causing an increase of aqueous. This increase of fluid puts pressure on and damages the optic nerve.
The optic nerve is critical to our sight. It is composed of over a million nerve fibers which aid in our vision. When increased pressure is put on the optic nerve, these fibers begin to die and result in blind spots. If all of the fibers are destroyed, the patient becomes blind.
There are two major types of glaucoma: primary open-angle glaucoma and angle-closure glaucoma (sometimes called “narrow-angle” or “closed-angle” glaucoma).
Primary open-angle glaucoma is the most common form of the disease. This type of glaucoma develops gradually, is painless and does not cause any changes in vision at first.
Angle-closure glaucoma may also develop slowly and occurs when a person’s iris (or colored part of the eye) is very close to the drainage angle. This can result in the iris blocking fluid from properly draining out of the eye. When this occurs suddenly, it is called an “acute attack.” Acute attacks are medical emergencies that could result in blindness if not treated right away. Symptoms of an acute attack include sudden blurry vision, severe eye pain, headaches, nausea, vomiting and rainbow-colored rings around lights. Many individuals are not aware they have this form of glaucoma until damage to the eye is severe, or they experience an acute attack. 1 out of 3 people with angle-closure glaucoma will experience acute attacks.
Glaucoma can affect people of any age, though some individuals are at higher risk than others. You might be at increased risk if you are over 40, have a family member with glaucoma, are of African or Hispanic descent, are far-sighted or near-sighted or have diabetes, migraines, poor blood circulation or other total-body health problems. Other risk factors can be discussed with your ophthalmologist.
Glaucoma is usually treated and controlled with medication, though laser surgery or operating room surgery are options your doctor may recommend. Unfortunately, the damage caused by glaucoma is not reversible. Treatments are meant to halt further damage from occurring.
Regular check-ups with an ophthalmologist can help determine if you are at risk of developing or have early signs of glaucoma. It is important to include routine eye exams in your yearly health plan.