Glaucoma

GlaucomaGlaucoma is a leading cause of blindness in the United States, especially for older people. But loss of sight from glaucoma is often preventable if you get treatment early enough.

Glaucoma is a disease of the optic nerve. The optic nerve carries the images we see to the brain. Many people know that glaucoma has something to do with pressure inside the eye. The higher the pressure inside the eye, the greater the chance of damage to the optic nerve.

The optic nerve is made up of a huge number of nerve fibers, like an electric cable containing a huge number of wires. Glaucoma can damage nerve fibers, causing blind spots to develop.

Usually people don't notice these blind areas until much optic nerve damage has already occurred. If the entire nerve is destroyed, blindness results.

Early detection and treatment by your ophthalmologist are the keys to preventing optic nerve damage and blindness from glaucoma. In order to detect glaucoma early, be sure to make an appointment for a glaucoma test at regular intervals.

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What causes glaucoma?

Clear liquid, called the aqueous humor, circulates inside the eye. A small amount of this fluid is produced constantly and an equal amount flows out of the eye through a microscopic drainage system. (The liquid is not part of the tears on the outer surface of the eye.) You can think of the flow of aqueous fluid as a sink with the faucet turned on all the time.

If the"drainpipe" gets clogged, water collects in the sink and the sink may overflow. Because the eye is a closed structure, the excess fluid cannot overflow if the drain is clogged. If the drainage area of the eye, called the drainage angle, is blocked, the fluid pressure within the inner eye may increase, which can damage the optic nerve.

How is glaucoma detected?

Regular eye examinations by your ophthalmologist are the best way to detect glaucoma.

During a complete and painless examination, your ophthalmologist will:

  • Measure your intraocular pressure (tonometry);
  • Inspect the drainage angle of your eye (gonioscopy);
  • Evaluate any optic nerve damage (ophthalmoscopy);
  • Test the visual field of each eye (perimetry).

Some of these tests may not be necessary for every person. You may need to repeat these tests on a regular basis, to determine if glaucoma damage is increasing over time.

Who is at risk for glaucoma?

High pressure alone does not mean that you have glaucoma. Your ophthalmologist puts together many kinds of information to determine your risk for developing the disease.

The most important risk factors include:

  • Age;
  • African ancestry;
  • A family history of glaucoma;
  • Past injuries to the eyes.

Your ophthalmologist will weigh all of these factors before deciding whether you need treatment for glaucoma, or whether you should be monitored closely as a glaucoma suspect.

This means your risk of developing glaucoma is higher than normal, and you need to have regular examinations to detect the early signs of damage to the optic nerve.

How is glaucoma treated?

As a rule, damage caused by glaucoma cannot be reversed. Eye drops, pills, and laser and surgical operations are used to prevent or slow further damage from occurring.

With any type of glaucoma, periodic examinations are very important to prevent vision loss. Because glaucoma can worsen without your being aware of it, your treatment may need to be changed over time.

Loss of vision can be prevented. Regular medical eye exams may help prevent unnecessary vision. Recommended intervals for eye exams are:

  • Age 20-39: Individuals of African descent or with a family history of glaucoma should have a medical exam every 3 to 5 years. Others can be seen at least once during this period;
  • Age 40-64: Every 2 to 4 years;
  • Age 65 or older: Every 1 to 2 years.

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