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What You Should Know About Glaucoma

This Week's Question: Glaucoma runs in my family. Is there a cure for it yet?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for glaucoma, a leading cause of blindness in the United States.

Any vision that glaucoma destroys cannot be restored. Early diagnosis of glaucoma is extremely important, because there are treatments that may save remaining vision.

Almost three million people in the U.S. have glaucoma. Those at highest risk are African-Americans, everyone over age 60, and people with a family history of glaucoma.

Glaucoma is defined as a group of diseases that can damage the eye's optic nerve, which carries images from the eye to the brain. Here's how glaucoma works:

A clear fluid flows through a small space at the front of the eye called the "anterior chamber." If you have glaucoma, the fluid drains too slowly out of the eye and pressure builds up. This pressure may damage the optic nerve.

However, increased eye pressure doesn't necessarily mean you have glaucoma. It means you are at risk for glaucoma. A person has glaucoma only if the optic nerve is damaged.

Glaucoma can develop in one or both eyes. The most common type of glaucoma starts out with no symptoms. Without treatment, people with glaucoma will slowly lose their peripheral vision. Eventually, the middle of your vision field may decrease until you are blind.

Glaucoma is just one reason seniors should make regular visits to an eye doctor. Glaucoma is detected through a comprehensive eye exam that includes a visual acuity test, visual field test, dilated eye exam, tonometry, and pachymetry.

A visual acuity test measures vision at various distances. A visual field test measures peripheral vision. In a dilated eye exam, a special magnifying lens is used to examine the inside of the eye. In tonometry, an instrument measures the pressure inside the eye. With pachymetry, an instrument is used to measure the thickness of your cornea, the transparent part of the front of the eye.

The most common treatments for glaucoma are medication and surgery. Medications for glaucoma may come in eye drops or pills. For most people with glaucoma, regular use of medications will control the increased fluid pressure.

Laser surgery is another treatment for glaucoma. The laser is focused on the part of the anterior chamber where the fluid leaves the eye. This makes it easier for fluid to exit the eye. Over time, the effect of this surgery may wear off. Patients who have laser surgery may need to keep taking glaucoma drugs.

Studies have shown that the early detection and treatment of glaucoma is the best way to control the disease. So, have your eyes examined thoroughly and regularly if you are in a high-risk category. And that includes all of us geezers.