Glaucoma is characterized by irreversible damage to the optic nerve due to increased intraocular pressure. This damage causes vision deterioration and if untreated, to blindness. Glaucoma may occur at any age, but most commonly develops in elderly people. Glaucoma is a disease that damages your eye’s optic nerve. It usually happens when fluid builds up in the front part of your eye. That extra fluid increases the pressure in your eye, damaging the optic nerve.
Glaucoma is a leading cause of blindness for people over 60 years old. But blindness from glaucoma can often be prevented with early treatment. In a healthy eye, excess fluid leaves the eye through the drainage angle, keeping pressure stable.
Types of glaucoma
There are two major types of glaucoma.
Primary open-angle glaucoma
This is the most common type of glaucoma. It happens gradually, where the eye does not drain fluid as well as it should (like a clogged drain). As a result, eye pressure builds and starts to damage the optic nerve. This type of glaucoma is painless and causes no vision changes at first.
Some people can have optic nerves that are sensitive to normal eye pressure. This means their risk of getting glaucoma is higher than normal. Regular eye exams are important to find early signs of damage to their optic nerve.
With open-angle glaucoma, there are no warning signs or obvious symptoms in the early stages. As the disease progresses, blind spots develop in your peripheral (side) vision.
Most people with open-angle glaucoma do not notice any change in their vision until the damage is quite severe. This is why glaucoma is called the “silent thief of sight.” Having regular eye exams can help your ophthalmologist find this disease before you lose vision. Your ophthalmologist can tell you how often you should be examined.
Angle-closure glaucoma (also called “closed-angle glaucoma” or “narrow-angle glaucoma” )
This type happens when someone’s iris is very close to the drainage angle in their eye. The iris can end up blocking the drainage angle. You can think of it like a piece of paper sliding over a sink drain. When the drainage angle gets completely blocked, eye pressure rises very quickly. This is called an acute attack. It is a true eye emergency, and you should call your doctor right away or you might go blind.
You see rainbow-colored rings or halos around lights People at risk for angle-closure glaucoma usually show no symptoms before an attack. Some early symptoms of an attack may include blurred vision, halos, mild headaches or eye pain. People with these symptoms should be checked by their ophthalmologist as soon as possible. An attack of angle-closure glaucoma includes the following:
severe pain in the eye or forehead, redness of the eye, decreased vision or blurred vision, seeing rainbows or halos, headache, nausea, vomiting
Many people with angle-closure glaucoma develop it slowly. This is called chronic angle-closure glaucoma. There are no symptoms at first, so they don’t know they have it until the damage is severe or they have an attack.
Angle-closure glaucoma can cause blindness if not treated right away.
People at risk for angle-closure glaucoma usually show no symptoms before an attack. Some early symptoms of an attack may include blurred vision, halos, mild headaches or eye pain. People with these symptoms should be checked by their ophthalmologist as soon as possible.
Normal tension glaucoma
People with “normal tension glaucoma” have eye pressure that is within normal ranges, but show signs of glaucoma, such as blind spots in their field of vision and optic nerve damage.
Some people have no signs of damage but have higher than normal eye pressure (called ocular hypertension). These patients are considered “glaucoma suspects” and have a higher risk of eventually developing glaucoma. They should be carefully monitored by an ophthalmologist.
Risk factors for glaucoma
Some people have a higher than normal risk of getting glaucoma. This includes people who are over age 40, have family members with glaucoma, are of African or Hispanic heritage, have high eye pressure, are farsighted or nearsighted, have had an eye injury, have corneas that are thin in the center, have thinning of the optic nerve, have diabetes, migraines, poor blood circulation or other health problems affecting the whole body.
Talk with an ophthalmologist about your risk for getting glaucoma. People with more than one of these risk factors have an even higher risk of glaucoma.
The only sure way to diagnose glaucoma is with a complete eye exam. A glaucoma screening that only checks eye pressure is not enough to find glaucoma.
During a glaucoma exam, your ophthalmologist will measure your eye pressure, inspect your eye’s drainage angle, examine your optic nerve for damage, test your peripheral (side) vision, take a picture or computer measurement of your optic nerve, measure the thickness of your cornea.
Glaucoma damage is permanent—it cannot be reversed. But medicine and surgery help to stop further damage. To treat glaucoma, your ophthalmologist may use one or more of the following treatments.
Glaucoma is usually controlled with eyedrop medicine. Used every day, these eye drops lower eye pressure. Some do this by reducing the amount of aqueous fluid the eye makes. Others reduce pressure by helping fluid flow better through the drainage angle.
Glaucoma medications can help you keep your vision, but they may also produce side effects. Some eye drops may cause a stinging or itching sensation, red eyes or red skin around the eyes, changes in your pulse and heartbeat, changes in your energy level, changes in breathing (especially if you have asthma or breathing problems), dry mouth, blurred vision, eyelash growth, changes in your eye color, the skin around your eyes or eyelid appearance.
All medications can have side effects. Some drugs can cause problems when taken with other medications. It is important to give your doctor a list of every medicine you take regularly. Be sure to talk with your ophthalmologist if you think you may have side effects from glaucoma medicine.
Never change or stop taking your glaucoma medications without talking to your ophthalmologist. If you are about to run out of your medication, ask your ophthalmologist if you should have your prescription refilled.
There are two main types of laser surgery to treat glaucoma. They help aqueous drain from the eye. These procedures are usually done in the ophthalmologist’s office.
Laser trabeculoplasty. This surgery is for people who have open-angle glaucoma. The eye surgeon uses a laser to make the drainage angle work better. That way fluid flows out properly and eye pressure is reduced.
Laser peripheral iridotomy. This is another type of laser application specifically for angle-closure glaucoma. The eye surgeon created small hole in the iris periphery to relieve blockage of the anterior angle by iris.
Operating room surgery
There is a number of surgical procedures having different mechanism of action. Some of them increase outflow of the fluid from the eye, others decrease production of intraocular fluid in the eye.