Glaucoma is one of most misunderstood eye diseases that eye doctors treat. Most people have heard of glaucoma and know they don’t want to have it, but I’ve found that most of my patients aren’t really sure how it damages vision or how it gets treated. 2.7 million people in the United States have glaucoma and it is the second leading cause of blindness.
Certain types of glaucoma are painless, which gives the disease the dubious distinction of being called “the sneak thief of vision”. It is a disease that damages the optic nerve in the eye causing progressive loss of peripheral vision, and by the time someone notices that they have lost portions of their visual field it is too late, and that visual loss is irreversible. One of the variables that causes the optic nerve to sustain damage is elevated intraocular pressure. If the pressure in the eye is extremely high, the eye will be painful, but the majority of patients only have moderately elevated pressure and will not know it is high until it is detected on a routine eye exam. Factors that increase the risk of developing glaucoma include being African American, having a family history, hypothyroidism, being over 60, and previous eye trauma. Typically, the initial treatment modality is using eye drops that lower the intraocular pressure, but more advanced or complicated cases may need laser or surgery.
A disease such as glaucoma is a perfect example of why everyone needs routine eye care, even if they have 20/20 vision, since evaluation of the optic nerve, peripheral vision, and eye pressure measurements in the office are key to preventing devastating and permanent vision loss.