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Glaucoma encompasses a spectrum of diseases that damage the optic nerve, which is responsible for transmitting visual information to your brain. Damage to the optic nerve is often a result of increased ocular pressure (but can also occur when eye pressure is normal) and can lead to irreversible vision loss and blindness. Eileen Bowden, M.D., UT Health Austin ophthalmologist in the Mitchel and Shannon Wong Eye Institute, answers common questions about the condition.
Is glaucoma preventable?
Some types of glaucoma are certainly avoidable. For example, you should always wear eye protection when participating in activities that put you at risk of experiencing trauma to the eye, because eye trauma may develop into glaucoma. If you have a family history of glaucoma, there may not be much you can do to avoid the condition completely, but it’s important to see an ophthalmologist yearly to help detect the signs of glaucoma and begin treatment to prevent further damage.”
Common risk factors for glaucoma include:
- A thin cornea
- Diabetes or high blood pressure
- Family history of glaucoma
- Low or high eye pressure
- Older age (usually over the age of 60, though it can occur at any age)
- Past eye surgery or injury
- Poor long-distance vision (severe nearsightedness)
- Poor short-distance vision (severe farsightedness)
- Use of corticosteroids (such as eye drops, pills, inhalers and creams)
Is it possible to have glaucoma and not be aware of it?
Glaucoma can be organized into two categories. The first is open-angle glaucoma in which the eye’s drainage canals become clogged overtime, causing an increase in eye pressure that damages the optic nerve. Patients with this type of glaucoma typically do not exhibit any symptoms until the glaucoma has advanced, which means they may have already permanently lost a significant amount of their peripheral vision.
The second is angle-closure glaucoma in which the iris bulges forward to narrow or block the eye’s drainage canals, which restricts fluid circulation, causing an increase in eye pressure that damages the optic nerve. Patients with this type of glaucoma often experience significant pain associated with the rapid rising of their ocular pressure.
Common symptoms of glaucoma include:
- Appearance of “halos” around bright lights
- Eye pain
- Eye redness
- Loss of peripheral vision or tunnel vision
- Nausea or vomiting
- Severe headache
What does glaucoma treatment entail?
Treatment depends on the stage at which we detect the glaucoma. If a patient is at risk of developing glaucoma, I would encourage them to come see me once per year so that we can perform annual testing and closely monitor the situation. If a patient has a glaucoma diagnosis and damage to the ocular nerve has occurred or ocular pressure is high, I would suggest they check in with me once every three months or so.
When treating glaucoma, we typically begin with less invasive treatment options, such as topical eyedrops or even oral pills that can help lower eye pressure. An in-office minimally invasive laser procedure can also be done. That only takes about five to 10 minutes. If we need to consider surgical intervention, this can also include minimally invasive procedures.
Have there been any recent breakthroughs in terms of reversing damage caused by glaucoma?
We still don’t know everything about glaucoma and why it occurs, and there’s a lot of room for research. I hope that maybe in the next few years we can shift away from focusing on preventing further damage caused by glaucoma and instead have certain treatments available that can reverse the damaging effects of glaucoma and restore vision that has been lost. In the meantime, continue eating a wide variety of healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables and leafy greens, try to find time to exercise to help reduce stress hormones in your body and be sure to schedule your annual eye exams.