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Young Eye Doctor with her patient

In a recent survey, blindness was ranked third behind cancer and heart disease, as most peoples’ major health related fear. One disease that specifically preys upon this fear is glaucoma, a frequently “silent” thief of vision. In response, January is observed as Glaucoma Awareness Month in many countries worldwide.

Below you will find useful information that can help you to better understand Glaucoma.

What is glaucoma?

Glaucoma is actually a group of diseases, which cause damage to the optic nerve (the pathway connecting the eye and the brain), leading to a progressive and irreversible loss of vision. According to the World Health Organisation, it is the second leading cause of blindness worldwide, affecting more than 60 million people. Unfortunately, experts estimate that half of those affected are unaware that they have the disease.

Are there different types of glaucoma?

Many varieties exist, but there are two broad categories, open angle and angle closure. Open angle is the most common type, in which the drainage tissues inside the eye do not function as efficiently as they should. This often leads to increased pressure inside the eye and subsequent damage to the optic nerve. The process develops slowly, and as a result of the lack of symptoms, up to 40% of one’s vision can be lost before the individual becomes aware.

Angle closure glaucoma more commonly affects the Asian population, and is caused by a physical obstruction of the normal drainage anatomy. This less common variety can present with a sudden onset of severe pain and a dramatic rise in eye pressure, requiring immediate medical attention.

What are risk factors for glaucoma?

No one is immune from risk. Although increasing age is a risk factor (risk is six times higher after age 60), the disease can occur in young people, and occasionally is even found in babies. People of African, Latino, or Asian descent are considered high risk. Another prominent risk factor is the presence of glaucoma in immediate family members. Additional associations include a history of prior blunt trauma to an eye, high dose steroid medication usage, diabetes, and high myopia (near-sightedness).

How can glaucoma be diagnosed?

Early detection is really the key to protecting one’s vision from damage. Routine examinations should include tonometry (measurement of the eye pressure) and ophthalmoscopy (dilated examination of the structures in the back segment of the eye). Cases of greater suspicion require more formal measurement of peripheral vision (perimetry), as this is where the functional evidence of damage first presents. In addition, more detailed measurement of the optic nerve tissue is often obtained to assist in longer term management decisions.

Routine screening exams are recommended roughly every 4-5 years for those under age 40, every 2 years for those aged 40-54, every 1-2 years for those aged 55-65, and yearly for those over age 65. For patients at high risk, annual screening should start at age 35.

How is glaucoma treated?

The good news is that when diagnosed promptly, the vast majority of cases can be managed to avoid significant progressive visual loss. Typically, treatment begins with topical eye drops intended to lower the eye pressure. When necessary, this can be augmented with multiple varieties of laser and incisional surgical procedures.

In conclusion, glaucoma remains a leading cause of blindness when left untreated, and at present is not curable. Although some people are at higher risk, everyone is at some risk. Given the common lack of symptoms, the best way to protect your sight from glaucoma is simply to get tested. Diagnosis is the first step to preserving your vision.

(Statistics courtesy of the Glaucoma Research Foundation)

By Dr. Sean Grinovich – Guest Writer

Dr. Sean Grinovich is a General Ophthalmologist who practices at Oasis Hospital in Al Ain.

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