Glaucoma: Symptoms & The Importance Of Awareness

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Glaucoma is the third most common cause of blindness worldwide. 45 million people around the world have become blind from glaucoma and that number is only increasing. A publication from the World Health Organization on vision around the world predicts that 95.4 million people will be affected by glaucoma by the year 2030. One of the reasons for this rapid spread of cases is that it’s not easy to spot it, so knowing how to look out for it is paramount.

What is glaucoma?

Glaucoma is an eye condition that can affect people of any age. The optic nerve becomes damaged by fluid building up in the front part of the eye, increasing pressure inside the eye. In a healthy eye, the fluid leaves through the drainage angle, keeping the pressure of the eye stable. But if the drainage angle is not working properly or it’s blocked, this fluid will build up. When the fluid builds up, the pressure does too and this is what damages the optic nerve. The optic nerve is made up of more than a million tiny nerve fibres. As these nerve fibres are damaged and die, blind spots will develop. This might not be noticeable until most of the optic nerve fibres have died, and when they all die, it results in total blindness. There are several different types of glaucoma:

Primary open-angle glaucoma

This is the most common type of glaucoma. It usually occurs in both eyes, but increased eye pressure tends to happen in one eye first. It happens gradually as the drainage angle begins to clog up over time. Pressure builds inside the eye and begins to damage the optic nerve. There are no symptoms nor vision changes at first, which is what makes this condition so difficult to detect.

Acute angle-closure glaucoma

This is what happens when the iris is very close to the drainage angle. The iris ends up blocking the drainage angle and the pressure inside the eye rises very quickly. This is called an acute attack and it requires urgent treatment. This particular type of glaucoma does have immediate symptoms once the attack begins:

  • Sudden blurry vision
  • Severe eye pain
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Rings or halos around lights

Secondary glaucoma

Secondary glaucoma is usually caused by an underlying eye condition or an injury to the eye. This type of glaucoma can occur immediately after the injury or years later.

What are glaucoma symptoms?

Unfortunately, there are no warning signs nor symptoms in the early stages of primary open-angle glaucoma. Half of those who suffer with glaucoma don’t even know they have it, which is why it’s often dubbed the ‘silent thief of sight’. It develops slowly over many years and gradually affects the edges of your vision to begin with, but most people won’t notice any change in vision until the damage is severe. It’s important to undergo regular 3D OCT eye exams, as our ophthalmologists use your eye exam findings to detect and treat certain conditions, including glaucoma, before you lose your vision.

With angle-closure glaucoma, there are no symptoms before an attack. The symptoms usually begin when the attack has already started which is why getting urgent care is vital.
Some people are classed as ‘glaucoma suspects’ when they have a higher-than-normal eye pressure, also known as ocular hypertension. Glaucoma suspects have a higher risk of eventually developing glaucoma and should be carefully monitored by an ophthalmologist to keep an eye out for changes over time and begin treatment if necessary.

What are the causes?

There are a number of glaucoma causes, but most are cases of built-up pressure in the eye. Exactly why this happens is unknown, but there are factors that can increase the risk, such as:

  • Age – although anyone can get glaucoma, it is more likely over the age of 40.
  • Ethnicity – people of certain ethnicities such as African, Caribbean, or Asian origin have a higher risk of developing glaucoma.
  • Steroids – long-term use of steroid medications can increase the risk of glaucoma.
  • Medical conditions – conditions such as shortsightedness, longsightedness and diabetes are known to cause glaucoma.

Is glaucoma hereditary?

Yes. There are genetic links with glaucoma, especially with primary open-angle glaucoma. If a member of your immediate family has glaucoma, you have a higher risk of developing it. According to the Glaucoma Research Foundation, family history increases risk of glaucoma four to nine times.

Can glaucoma be cured?

Glaucoma cannot be cured as the damage that causes blindness cannot be undone. But treatment can prevent any further damage and help stop your vision getting worse.
Glaucoma treatments vary depending on the type of glaucoma you have, but the options are:

  • Eyedrops – to lower eye pressure either by reducing the amount of fluid the eye makes or by helping the fluid flow through the drainage angle.
  • Laser treatment – to open up blocked drainage tubes or reduce fluid production.
  • Surgery – to create a new drainage channel and improve fluid drainage.
  • Glaucoma patients will also require regular check-ups to manage the condition and adjust treatment if necessary.

Glaucoma diagnosis

Glaucoma can only be diagnosed with a complete eye exam, during which an ophthalmologist will measure your eye pressure, inspect the drainage angle, examine the optic nerve, test your peripheral vision and measure the thickness of your cornea.

Because glaucoma has no warning signs and can result in complete blindness, it is especially important to be aware of it. If you are at high risk of developing glaucoma, you must have regular eye exams.

If you’re concerned that you might be a glaucoma suspect, speak to your local independent opticians and book an appointment for an eye exam. If you’re a glaucoma sufferer, make sure you’re regularly speaking to your ophthalmologist and managing the condition – if you’re in need of any assurance, simply contact us and we’ll be able to help.

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