More than 2.7 million people in the U.S. over the age of 40 have glaucoma, and many don’t even know they have it until permanent vision loss has set in. Aptly called the “silent thief of sight,” glaucoma offers no warning signs before it starts to take your vision. January is dedicated to glaucoma awareness, encouraging people to have regular eye exams to help save their vision before it is too late.
Glaucoma is caused by a group of disorders that damage the optic nerve in the eye: this damage leads to vision loss and blindness. Increased pressure in the eye resulting from the buildup of excess fluid causes damage to the optic nerve. This nerve transmits images to the brain, making it a vital component of vision.
For the general population, the risk of developing glaucoma increases significantly after age 60. For African Americans, the risk increases after age 40. Glaucoma can affect all ages and ethnicities but is more commonly seen in middle-age and elderly people as well as those of African, Hispanic and Latino descent.
People with medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease are also at an increased risk for developing glaucoma. Those with a family history of glaucoma should be especially aware. The long-term use of steroids can also increase one’s risk for the disease as much as 40 percent. Additionally, eye injuries, including blunt injuries that bruise the eye, retinal detachment, eye tumors, inflammation and certain eye surgeries can increase the risk for developing glaucoma.
There are no early warning signs for glaucoma. It causes painless and gradual vision loss over time. Once symptoms appear, it is typically too late to prevent vision loss. These symptoms occur in three stages:
- Blind spots in your peripheral vision
- Tunnel vision (loss of peripheral vision)
- Total blindness
The only way to catch glaucoma early is through regular eye exams. During the exam, your eye doctor will check for glaucoma by dilating each eye to look through your pupil to the back of the eye, where the optic nerve is located. Your eye doctor will perform a visual field test to check your peripheral vision as well as a visual acuity test to determine your ability to see at a distance. Your doctor may also perform a pachymetry to determine the thickness of your cornea and a gonioscopy to check the angle in the eye where the iris meets the cornea.
Treatment options for glaucoma include eye drops, oral medications and surgery. Oral medications are typically introduced when eye drops do not sufficiently control the disease. If medications do not work well, surgery can be performed.
Taking a step as simple as having regular eye exams could save your vision. To make an appointment, call Illinois Eye Center at (309) 242-2400.