Glaucoma is the leading cause of blindness in the United States. It is a disease that typically affects older people, but it can occur at any age. Loss of vision is preventable if the disease is detected early and treatment is started.
The eye has about 1 million tiny nerve fibers which run from the back of the eye to the brain. These nerve fibers allow us to see. Glaucoma is a disease which causes the destruction of these fibers. It was once thought that the loss of these fibers was due to strictly to high pressure in the eye. But now it is known that even patients with normal eye pressure can have glaucoma and loss of these nerve fibers.
In many patients, the disease is not noticed in the early stages, because there is no pain and no noticeable change in vision. Early detection by an eye doctor is the key to the prevention of vision damage from glaucoma. Routine eye examinations are recommended.
The reason that eye pressure is high in many glaucoma patients is that the drainage system in the eye is not working properly. The fluid in the eye, called aqueous humor, does not flow out of the eye as quickly as it should. The drainage system lies in a part of the eye called the angle, which is between the outer layer and the iris of the eye. This angle can be open or closed.
There are several kinds of glaucoma. The most common form of glaucoma is called chronic open angle glaucoma. The drainage angle is open in these patients, but the eye fluid does not drain as quickly as it should. Closed-angle glaucoma occurs when the drainage angle closes, and almost no eye fluid can escape. During closed-angle glaucoma, eye pressure can get very high and which can cause mild-severe pain. Angle closure glaucoma is an emergency and must be treated immediately. If the high pressure is allowed to continue for too long, blindness can result.
Some persons are more likely to have glaucoma. Risk factors for developing glaucoma include:
- Older adults
- Myopia (nearsightedness)
- Family history of glaucoma
- Eye injury
- Diabetes or past history of vascular shock
Glaucoma is treated with eye drops that lower the eye pressure. If the pressure does not fall to a low enough level with drops, then surgery may be necessary. Glaucoma surgery opens up the drainage system in the angle so that the eye fluid can flow more freely.