Glaucoma, one of the leading causes of blindness, is estimated to affect 1 of every 50 adults. Although glaucoma can occur at any age, the risk of developing the disease increases dramatically after the age of 35. Glaucoma is also more likely to develop in those who are severely nearsighted, those with a family history of the condition, diabetics, and African Americans. Because the symptoms of early glaucoma are so slight, the disease often goes unnoticed until permanent vision loss has occurred. However, with early diagnosis and careful treatment, visual damage from glaucoma can be prevented.
Glaucoma is a disease which damages the optic nerve. When light enters the eye, an image is focused onto the retina, the delicate nerve layer lining the inside back wall of the eye. The retina then transforms the light images into electrical impulses which are carried to the brain by the optic nerve. Damage to the optic nerve and retina causes blind spots in the field of vision. If the entire nerve is destroyed, blindness will occur.
Glaucoma is usually caused by an increase in the fluid pressure in the eye. The front part of the eye contains a clear, nourishing fluid called the aqueous which constantly circulates through the eye. Normally, this fluid leaves the eye through a drainage system and returns to the blood stream.
Glaucoma occurs from an overproduction of fluid or when the drainage system becomes blocked, causing fluid pressure to increase. The high pressure causes damage to the optic nerve, resulting in permanent vision loss. The exact reason the fluid system in the eye stops functioning properly is not completely understood. Much research is being done in this area to further our understanding of glaucoma.
With early detection and treatment, glaucoma can almost always be controlled and vision preserved. However, glaucoma cannot be cured, and once vision has been lost it cannot be restored. A combination of eye drops, medication, laser treatment, and conventional surgery is used to treat glaucoma. Treatment is concentrated on lowering the pressure inside the eye to prevent damage to the optic nerve.
Prevention is the best medicine – vision loss from glaucoma is permanent but can be prevented with early detection and treatment – regular eye examinations are important.