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What You Need to Know About Glaucoma – The Sneak Thief of Sight

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January is National Glaucoma Awareness Month.

What is Glaucoma?

Glaucoma is called the sneak thief of sight because it is silent eye disease that has no symptoms until it is too late.  Once the damage has occurred, it is permanent and can't be undone.  It can lead to tunnel vision, and even to blindness.  Glaucoma is actually a group of diseases that causes  damage to the optic nerve.

Similar to high blood pressure or diabetes, there is no cure for glaucoma, but treatment can stop or slow the damage to the eye. Treatment, however, can’t reverse damage that is already done.  Glaucoma affects the optic nerve that sends visual information from your eye to your brain.  There is no pain or "pressure sensation" as one may expect.  By the time it is diagnosed there may already be permanent vision loss.

When vision loss happens, it usually affects the peripheral (side vision) vision, the , before it affects central (straight ahead) vision.

Yearly comprehensive eye examinations are the key to finding and treating glaucoma in order to prevent vision loss.

What Causes Glaucoma?

There are different theories as to what causes Glaucoma.  Although it is thought to be pressure in the eye, many now believe that the problem is actually due to a brain-based problem.  There are many types of glaucoma:

Chronic (open angle) glaucoma is the most common type of glaucoma.

Acute (angle closure) glaucoma is when the drainage system is narrow and it can cause a sudden buildup of pressure that can cause a situation similar to a heart-attack in the eye.  Symptoms can include blurred vision, eye pain, headaches, seeing halos around lights, nausea and vomiting.

Secondary glaucoma results from another eye disease or due a trauma to the eye.

Normal tension glaucoma is when there is damage to the optic nerve even though the eye pressure is normal. We are still not yet sure what causes this type of glaucoma.

Who is at Risk for Glaucoma?

Glaucoma becomes more prevalent as we get older, but it can occur even in childhood.  Ray Charles, for example, went blind due to glaucoma at age 5.

Glaucoma is more easily treated and has a better prognosis when diagnosed and treated early.  People can still have glaucoma even in there is no family history of glaucoma.  Certain general diseases, such as diabetes, can bring on glaucoma.

Individuals from African American, Hispanic, Asian and Native American descent are at a higher risk. Family history is a very strong factor.  Glaucoma is twice as likely if there is a close relatives who has glaucoma, although not having a family member with glaucoma does not mean you will not.

Eye injuries, traumas or surgeries can bring on a secondary glaucoma. Individuals who must use steroids for long periods, for example people who have asthma, are more likely to contract glaucoma.  Certain medical and eye conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and high myopia (nearsightedness) also increase a person’s risk of developing glaucoma.

We usually treat glaucoma with eye drop medication.  At times surgery may be needed

There is little one can do in the way of prevention. You can however reduce your chances of suffering vision loss. The best possible way to prevent vision loss is to have regular comprehensive eye exams to check the health of your eyes.  If your eye doctors prescribes medication for glaucoma, make sure to diligently take them as directed.