By Capt. Amy Molina
Special to GUIDON
More than 3 million people in the United States are currently diagnosed with glaucoma. The National Eye Institute anticipates this number to rise to 4.2 million by 2030. Glaucoma can be secretively present.
There are no detectable symptoms of glaucoma until it is too late. A person with the disease can lose up to 40 percent of their vision without even noticing and this loss is irreversible.
Early detection is key. Knowing the risk factors, scheduling routine comprehensive eye exams with an optometrist and reviewing your medical eye history as a family can help prevent vision loss from glaucoma.
What is glaucoma?
Glaucoma is an eye disease that causes damage to the optic nerve, the main nerve that connects the eye to the brain. The optic nerve is like an electric cable made up of numerous fibers that transmits information to and from the brain.
Once the optic nerve has been damaged, it cannot regenerate. Damage to the optic nerve can cause missing areas of vision that start in the periphery (side vision) and can progress until central vision is affected.
There are different types of glaucoma. The main types are associated with an increase in eye pressure known as intraocular pressure. Pressure can increase in the eye due to improper flow of fluid that cycles within the eye.
Primary open-angle glaucoma is the most common form where the drainage system in the eye slowly clogs over time, but the angle between the iris and the cornea remains open.
Angle-closure glaucoma is when the drainage system is blocked because there is no opening between the iris and the cornea. This is less common. Normal tension glaucoma is when damage occurs to the optic nerve even though the pressure inside the eye is normal. Other forms include congenital glaucoma, which is present from birth, and secondary glaucoma, which is where other diseases or injuries are the root cause to high pressures in the eye and damage to the optic nerve.
Is there a cure?
At this time, there is no cure for glaucoma. However, medicated eyedrops or surgery that lowers the eye pressure can help slow the progression of glaucoma and prevent further vision loss. Close follow up with your eye doctor will keep you monitored and on track.
Who is at risk for developing glaucoma?
People of African, Asian and Hispanic descent are at higher risk for developing glaucoma. Other people that are at risk include those over the age of 60 or who have a history of glaucoma in their immediate family. Some studies suggest that diabetics and people who are highly nearsighted may also be at greater risk for glaucoma.
How to find out if you are at risk for glaucoma
Schedule a comprehensive ocular health examination with your optometrist. The optometrist can assess your risk for glaucoma based on your medical history, anatomy of your eye, appearance of your optic nerve and pressure inside your eye.
If you are at risk for glaucoma, the optometrist may perform other tests that can help monitor for glaucoma which include a scan of the optic nerve and a visual field test.
The optic nerve scan is called an optical coherence tomography and can count the number of nerve cells or fibers in the optic nerve. If the nerve is damaged, fewer nerve cells will be present and progression of glaucoma would show a decreasing number of nerve fibers over time.
A visual field is a test that allows the optometrist to specifically map out the extent of your field of vision, which can also be monitored for change or loss over time.
Your optometrist will recommend a follow-up schedule based on the examination. If glaucoma is found soon enough, vision can be preserved. It is recommended to visit your optometrist for comprehensive eye care in order to detect this condition as soon as possible.
Read more about the types, symptoms, tests and risk factors of glaucoma by visiting https://www.glaucoma.org/glaucoma.
(Editor’s note: Molina is the officer-in-charge of the General Leonard Wood Army Community Hospital Optometry Service.)