January 17, 2018
January is National Glaucoma Awareness Month. (Photo: No, that's not the Eye of Sauron, but it is an eye. Specifically, the macula, vessels, and optic disc.)
Glaucoma is a general term for a group of eye diseases that damage the optic nerve, which carries information from the eye to the brain. Google the term and you'll find a list of different, often exotic-sounding diseases, from pseudoexfoliation to Irido Corneal Endothelial Syndrome. (Word to the squeamish: avoid a Google Image search.)
"Everyone has heard of glaucoma. The type we are usually talking about is called primary open angle glaucoma," says Daniel Hanson, MD, ophthalmologist at Boys Smith Vision Center. Called POAG for short, open-angle glaucoma affects about 1% of Americans, making it the most common form of glaucoma in the U.S.
Glaucoma doesn't discriminate. Anyone can have it, so routine eye exams are important to look for signs of optic nerve damage. Depending on risk factors (family history, optic nerve appearance, high eye pressure) there are additional tests which help identify the disease.
Dr. Hanson describes the stages of glaucoma as mild, moderate, and severe.
"In the mild stage, there is damage to the optic nerve but without any vision loss. The patient experiences no noticeable symptoms, so it's found by looking for changes in the optic nerve during a vision exam.
"Moderate glaucoma means that there is some loss of peripheral vision, but this is almost never noticed by patients.
"Severe glaucoma includes more extensive peripheral vision loss and/or loss of near-central vision. Patients are only likely to notice visual changes at this stage. Unfortunately, vision loss due to glaucoma is permanent, so identifying and treating as early as possible is critical.”
"Glaucomatous damage to the optic nerve is permanent," clarifies Hanson. "But fortunately with the eye there's a lot of redundancy. You can lose a number of neurons and have no problem (mild stages). Once there's no reserve left any small change in the optic nerve can result in additional loss of vision."
Once a patient has been diagnosed with glaucoma, the goal is to lower the eye pressure. Depending on the type and severity, there are various ways to reduce pressure, including laser therapies, eye drops, and surgical procedures. "We individually tailor treatment to be medically effective but also less costly for the patient,” says Hanson.
Today, over 3 million people in the U.S. are affected by glaucoma. That number is expected to increase by 58% by 2030. The bottom line? While there is no cure for glaucoma, there is treatment, and the earlier it's detected the better the chances of managing and maintaining good visual function for the rest of your life.
Managed by Kittitas Valley Healthcare, HealthNews does not provide medical advice. For medical advice, please see your healthcare provider.