Glaucoma is called the “silent thief of sight” because by the time a person notices vision loss, significant damage has already been done.
January is National Glaucoma Awareness Month, and the central message is that everyone should have a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least every other year to ensure healthy vision, said Northeaster State University Oklahoma College of Optometry Associate Dean Michelle Welch.
“Glaucoma is the kind of disease that sneaks up on people,” Welch said. “What happens is you lose side [or peripheral] vision first, but with people who have two eyes, the other eye kind of helps to cover. So you don’t really notice anything is going on. Even for those people who have really bad glaucoma – sort of at the end of the disease, they see 20-20. That’s why glaucoma is kind of the silent thief of vision. You really don’t notice much [changing with your vision until it’s almost too late].”
Nearly three million people in the United States, and more than 60 million worldwide, have glaucoma, and half are estimated to be unaware of having the eye disease, according to the Glaucoma Research Foundation. The World Health Organization estimated that 4.5 million people around the world are blind as a result of glaucoma.
According to the National Eye Institute, glaucoma is a group of eye diseases that can cause damage to the eye’s optic nerve and result in vision loss and blindness. The most common form is primary open-angle glaucoma, which includes fluid buildup in the eye’s front chamber. Damage to the optic nerve is a result of the increased pressure created by the fluid buildup.
Open-angle glaucoma can affect people of all ages and races, but individuals who fall within a high-risk group – like Native Americans, African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, those who have a family history of glaucoma or have experienced significant trauma to the eye – should receive a dilated pupil test to increase opportunity of early detection, said Welch.
“Those people who are at higher risk should definitely be getting their eyes checked with a dilated exam. Not just a screening; it needs to be a full dilated exam every two years,” she said. “Even for healthy people, every two years is a good recommendation. Diabetic people should get their eyes checked every year.”
A comprehensive dilated eye exam is a pain-free procedure in which an eye care professional inspects the eyes to look for common vision problems and eye diseases. This process, which includes dilation and tests for tonometry, visual field and visual acuity, can serve to protect sight and establish vision effectiveness.
If signs of glaucoma are detected early, people can rest assured that treatment options are available, said Tahlequah optometrist James Mahaney.
“It’s a very treatable disease, as long as it’s caught early,” said Mahaney. “Most people will catch that in a routine eye exam. Treatments are very advanced to what it was 10 years ago.”
The first form of treatment for most cases of glaucoma is an eye-drop medication prescribed to lower eye pressure, according to a national glaucoma research American Health Assistance Foundation program report.
The main method to lower eye pressure for most people identified with glaucoma is to use eye drops, which present a variety of different kinds of eye medications, though all have the sole function of lowering pressure in the eye. Welch emphasized that early detection is key to provide the best opportunity of combating negative progression of the disease.
“Normally the doctor’s going to talk to the patient about their lifestyle. The mainstay of treating glaucoma right now is putting you on an eye drop, and some of the drops are once a day. So it’s not a big burden,” she said. “If that doesn’t work, they may have to go to different drops. The drop decreases the pressure.”
Welch said a great deal remains unknown about glaucoma.
“It’s one of those things that we know how to moderate,” said Welch. “It’s kind of like diabetes. You can’t cure it. It’s a disease you’re going to have to manage. If the drops get to where they’re not controlling the pressure enough, the next stage is maybe considering a laser treatment. Eventually, you might actually have a more advanced surgical procedure.”
Welch added people who get regular dilated eye exams increase their chances of sustaining vision throughout their lifetime.
“Most people, if they identify it early and get on their appropriate treatment, are going to have vision,” she said “Now if you wait until it’s too late, then it’s hard to stop the advancement of the damage. If we wait until we see vision loss, you’re pretty far down that road. So it needs to be addressed before it’s noticed. Early intervention for glaucoma is key.”
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