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January is Glaucoma Awareness Month. What is glaucoma?

Glaucoma is a sight-threatening disease affecting the optic nerve –the direct connection between each eye and the brain. When glaucoma damages optic nerves, areas of blind spots develop in the peripheral vision. As the nerves deteriorate, so does vision. If untreated, blindness eventually occurs.

Why is glaucoma education important?

Glaucoma is the second most common cause of blindness in the U.S. and is the leading cause of blindness among African Americans. More than 2.5 million Americans have glaucoma yet half of them do not realize it because glaucoma has few early warning symptoms. In some cases, glaucoma has no onset symptoms. Early detection and treatment of glaucoma by an ophthalmologist is essential to preventing vision loss.

Unnecessary vision loss from glaucoma can be prevented through public education. This is the primary goal of Glaucoma Awareness Month.

Who is at risk for acquiring glaucoma?

Elderly people, African-Americans and anyone with elevated eye pressure are more likely to develop glaucoma. The most significant risk factor is an intraocular pressure of 21mm of mercury or higher.

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What causes elevated intraocular pressure?

Eye tissues are nourished by fluids that continuously flow inside the eye. In the front of the eye, fluid drains out through the anterior chamber angle (where the iris and cornea come together) through a canal to a vein. If drainage is restricted, fluids back up and pressure inside the eyeball increases to a level that damages the optic nerve.

Why African-Americans?

The disease appears at an earlier age and is usually more advanced when it is first diagnosed. African-Americans are 3 to 4 times more likely to have glaucoma than Caucasians in identical age groups. This may explain why African-Americans suffer a higher rate of blindness than all other groups.

What other groups are at risk for developing glaucoma?

People with immediate family members who have glaucoma. Individuals who are highly near sighted or those who have suffered an eye injury. Patients with diabetes and people who use steroids are in a higher risk group as well.

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Are there different types of glaucoma?

There are two major forms of glaucoma as well as some rare forms of the disease. Open angle glaucoma is the most common, accounting for 70% of all glaucoma patients. Angle closure glaucoma is the second most common type.

The rare forms are congenital and childhood glaucoma.

What is open-angle glaucoma?

The optic nerve is being damaged from increased intraocular pressure yet there is no structural deformity in the eye.

What are the symptoms of open-angle glaucoma?

In the early stages, there are no symptoms. This condition causes no discomfort. There is no vision loss so most people do not seek treatment. By the time an individual is aware of any vision loss, the condition is rather advanced. If untreated, open-angle glaucoma will eventually cause tunnel vision and, over time, vision will continue to decline into blindness.

How is open-angle glaucoma treated?

Intraocular pressure in open angle glaucoma is relieved by reducing the amount of fluid produced in the eyeball or by increasing the flow of liquid out of the anterior chamber. This can be accomplished with medicine, laser or surgery. Advanced stages of glaucoma may require a combination of two or all three of these procedures. Medication, usually in the form of eye drops, is the preferred treatment for early stage glaucoma. Long-term studies report no significant differences in successful results between laser and surgical treatments

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Will these treatments restore vision loss?

Regrettably, no. These treatments save your current vision and prevent further loss. We cannot yet restore vision due to a damaged optic nerve. This is why early diagnosis of glaucoma by an experienced ophthalmologist is essential.

What is angle-closure glaucoma?

If the eye’s iris bows forward and blocks fluid flowing out of the anterior chamber angle, pressure inside the eyeball rapidly increases. Damage to the optic nerve can occur quickly with subsequent loss of vision.

What are the symptoms of angle closure glaucoma?

Severe eye pain, blurry vision and halos. The eye appears red and inflamed. Patients with angle closure glaucoma may experience intense headaches, nausea and vomiting.

How is angle closure glaucoma treated?

The intraocular pressure must be immediately reduced with laser surgery. The longer the eye pressure remains abnormally high, the greater the risk of permanent vision loss. Treatment continues with correction of the angle closure. Anyone experiencing eye pain and abnormal vision should see an ophthalmologist as soon as possible.

Who is in a high risk group for angle closure glaucoma?

Angle closure glaucoma is the second most common type of glaucoma in the United States, accounting for 10% of all glaucoma cases.

This condition is more common among Asians, women and far-sighted individuals. A family history of angle closure glaucoma also places people in a higher risk group.

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What can these groups of people do to reduce their risk of experiencing angle closure glaucoma?

Knowledge of the symptoms and, most importantly, realizing the necessity of immediate medical attention should the symptoms occur. Many ophthalmologists recommend preventative laser treatment in an effort to avoid acute angle closure and the possibility of permanent vision loss.

How can I reduce my chances of developing glaucoma?

Regular eye exams offer your ophthalmologist an opportunity to detect any indications of elevated eye pressure and optic nerve damage. Pupils may be dilated for optimal observation of the retina and optic nerve. A visual field test may be given to evaluate peripheral vision. Other visual tests are available to help the ophthalmologist reach a definitive diagnosis.

What if I can’t afford the fee for a glaucoma examination?

The American Academy of Ophthalmologists has established a Glaucoma EyeCare Program that refers qualified people to volunteer ophthalmologists for a free examination.

What are the qualifications?

U.S. citizens or legal residents who are at increased risk for glaucoma who do not belong to an HMO or are eligible for VA healthcare. They must not have been examined by an ophthalmologist in a year or more.

A representative of the Glaucoma EyeCare Program will make arrangements for an examination by an ophthalmologist. Call (800) 391-3937.

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