January is National Glaucoma Awareness Month. Glaucoma is one sight-threatening disease that is routinely checked for at an eye examination. Glaucoma is currently estimated to affect 3 million Americans. At least half of those do not know they have it because glaucoma usually has no symptoms until the disease has progressed to an advanced stage. Therefore it is important for patients to understand this disease and have their eyes checked for glaucoma regularly.
Glaucoma is an eye disease in which the internal pressure in the eyes increases enough to damage the nerve fibers in the optic nerve and cause vision loss. This elevated intraocular pressure is not the disease itself, but the most important risk factor for the development of glaucoma. While damage from glaucoma cannot be reversed, early detection can result in treatment to minimize the risks or the effects of the disease.
Glaucoma has several forms, and because it can strike anyone, everyone should have their eyes checked regularly. Certain risk factors, however, elevate your chances of having the disease. These apply to you if: your family has a history of glaucoma or
- you are over 45
- you are African-American
- you have diabetes
- you are very nearsighted
The most common type of glaucoma develops gradually and painlessly, without early symptoms. In later stages, symptoms may occur, including:
- loss of peripheral vision
- difficulty focusing on close work
- seeing colored rings or halos around lights
- headaches and eye pain
- frequent change of prescription glasses
- difficulty adjusting eyes to the dark
Because vision loss from glaucoma is irreversible, it is important to get regular and complete eye exams. The Michigan College of Optometry along with the American Optometric Association recommends annual eye examinations for people at risk for glaucoma. A comprehensive eye examination will include a tonometry test to measure the pressure in your eyes; an examination of the inside of your eyes and optic nerves; and a visual field test to check for changes in central and side vision. If detected, treatment for glaucoma includes prescription eye drops and medications as well as continual monitoring. In some cases, laser treatment or surgery may be effective in reducing pressure.
There are many resources available on the web to help answer questions about glaucoma. Some include diagrams of the eye, which may help in understanding the disease. Check out The Glaucoma Foundation— The American Optometric Association Glaucoma — National Eye Institute Glaucoma Facts for additional information.