Glaucoma is the second leading cause of blindness globally. With the average life expectancy increasing and the baby-boomer population reaching age 65, we have seen dramatic increases in rates of glaucoma in the United States.
Glaucoma is defined as damage to the optic nerve over time. The damage is often caused by elevated pressure in the eye.
There is a class of glaucoma dubbed “low tension glaucoma” in which the eye pressure is not abnormally high, but the optic nerve still experiences damage.
Glaucoma can be a very manageable eye disease for patients in whom it is caught early and treated properly. Glaucoma damages your vision early on in the very far periphery and generally causes changes very slowly over time.
For these reasons, people usually do not notice any vision issues from glaucoma when it is first diagnosed. It does not cause any pain in the eye for the vast majority of people.
Eventually, left untreated, glaucoma will cause more and more peripheral vision loss and finally blindness.
The danger is that when peripheral vision losses can be recognized, there has already been profound damage to the optic nerve. There is a significant amount of damage to the optic nerve that goes unnoticed in terms of visual changes to the patient.
This works in our favor when it comes to treating glaucoma that is diagnosed early. As long as regular follow-ups are maintained and treatment is appropriate, the majority of patients will not experience significant vision loss from glaucoma.
The first line treatment for glaucoma is a medicated eye drop that lowers the intraocular pressure. Even in patients with low-tension glaucoma, we lower the eye pressure even further to protect the optic nerve.
There are multiple different medications to do this, and patients can be on up to three different eye drops if the pressure is hard to control.
In cases where the pressure cannot be controlled with eye drops, there are laser and surgical procedures to further reduce it.
We refer to glaucoma as the silent vision disease because it is painless and usually unnoticed by the patient initially. This is one of the many important reasons to have your eye health checked annually, even if you believe you are seeing well.
Your eye care provider will screen for this and many other eye diseases during your comprehensive exam and notify you of any abnormalities.
Caroline Bundrick, O.D. is an optometrist practicing at Darling Eye Center, with offices in Bluffton and on Hilton Head Island.