Many vision conditions are age-related, meaning the risk of developing the condition increases as you age. Glaucoma is one such condition. One of the biggest dangers of glaucoma is that it is often asymptomatic in the early stages, making it impossible to detect without a routine eye exam.
A large number of people currently living with glaucoma are not aware they have it. Of the three million Americans suffering from glaucoma, only half are aware of it. By the time they start to notice changes in their vision, the condition is already in its advanced stages. That’s why it’s important that patients understand the risk factors for the condition and undergo regular eye exams.
Remember: While early treatment can slow the progression of glaucoma, it can’t reverse vision loss caused by the condition.
What Are the Symptoms of Glaucoma?
Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases that share certain characteristics such as high eye pressure, damage to the optic nerve and gradual vision loss. The most common types of glaucoma are:
Open-angle glaucoma – It’s estimated that open-angle glaucoma, the most common type of glaucoma in the country, affects three million Americans. The condition is caused by clogged drainage canals, which can increase eye pressure and damage the optic nerve.
What are the symptoms? Blind spots in your peripheral (side) vision and central vision as well as tunnel vision (in the later stages)
Angle-closure glaucoma – Angle-closure glaucoma is not as common as open-angle glaucoma, but its symptoms tend to develop quickly. This less common form of glaucoma occurs when the iris bulges and blocks the drainage angle, cutting off circulation and increasing eye pressure.
What are the symptoms? Blurry vision, severe headache, eye pain, nausea and vomiting, seeing halos around lights, and red eyes. If you experience any of these symptoms, see an optometrist as soon as possible.
- Normal tension glaucoma – In most cases, damage to the optic nerves is caused by eye pressure. However, the optic nerves of patients with normal-or-low-tension glaucoma are susceptible to damage even though their eye pressure falls within the normal pressure range of 12-22 mm Hg. The causes of this condition are still unknown.
What Are the Risk Factors?
While anyone can develop glaucoma, there are certain factors that can increase your risk:
- Age – Patients aged 60 and over are six times more likely to develop glaucoma.
- Family history – You’re approximately four to nine times more likely to develop open-angle glaucoma if there’s a family history of the condition.
- Steroid use – Several studies have observed a link between the use of steroids and glaucoma. A 1997 study in the Journal of American Medical Association found that there was a 40% increased incidence of ocular hypertension and open-angle glaucoma among asthmatic adults that needed 14 to 35 puffs of steroid inhaler. Keep in mind that such doses are only administered in severe cases.
- Eye trauma – Previous eye injuries can damage your eyes’ drainage systems, increasing your risk for secondary open-angle or traumatic glaucoma.
- Nearsightedness (myopia) or farsightedness (hyperopia)
The Importance of Routine Eye Exams
The best way to prevent complications arising from glaucoma is to see your local eye doctor for routine eye exams. Early treatment can reduce the risk of vision loss or complications.
How often should you see your eye doctor? The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends patients aged under 40 to undergo a comprehensive eye exam every five to 10 years. Patients aged 40 and above should undergo an eye exam:
- Every one to three years before from age 40 to 54
- Every one to two years from age 55 to 64
- Every six to 12 months once they’re past 65
How Glaucoma Can Be Treated
If your optometrist notices any of the warning signs, they might recommend some of the following treatment options:
Prescription eye drops -Eye drops are used in mild to moderate cases of glaucoma, depending on the patient’s intraocular pressure (IOP). You might experience a few side effects, such as eye irritation or redness, after using prescription the drops, but these side effects are only temporary.
Quick tip: Keep in mind that you might experience side effects that affect parts of your body not related to your eyes if the eyedrop medicine is absorbed into your bloodstream. To prevent the medicine from being absorbed too quickly, make sure to close your eyes for a minute or two after using the eye drops. If your eye doctor prescribed two or more types of eye drops, wait at least five minutes before switching to a different type.
- Laser treatment – If you have trouble using eye drops, your optometrist might recommend laser treatment, particularly selective laser trabeculoplasty (SLT) and argon laser trabeculoplasty (ALT), instead. The two low-risk treatments can help open up your eyes’ drainage system and reduce eye pressure. These treatments can be done in the doctor’s office, usually last only a couple minutes, and involve no stitches at all. Most patients are able to return to their daily routines fairly quickly after undergoing laser treatment.
- Micro-invasive glaucoma (MIGS) surgeries – When you undergo MIGS surgery, an optometrist will implant a tiny device into the affected eye to help improve eye drainage and, in the process, reduce eye pressure. Like laser treatment, MIGS surgeries are relatively low risk and can be done quickly.
- Trabeculectomy and tube shunt – Older patients suffering from advanced glaucoma may need to undergo more traditional surgeries. Trabeculectomy and tube shunts are some options. During a trabeculectomy, an eye surgeon will cut a small incision in the eye to allow fluid to drain and lower eye pressure. Tube shunt surgery, on the other hand, involves implanting a small tube through which fluid can drain out of the eye. Traditional glaucoma surgery may be more invasive and involve more complications than more modern treatments. However, traditional glaucoma surgeries are still quite safe and effective. Before making a decision on which treatment you’ll undergo, you should discuss all your concerns with your optometrist. They should be able to inform you of the pros and cons of each treatment and help you weigh your options.
Reducing Your Risk for Glaucoma
Fortunately, there are several ways you can reduce your risk of developing glaucoma. In addition to undergoing routine eye exams, you can:
- Do moderate exercise – Studies have noted that moderate exercise, such as brisk walking or jogging, can lower eye pressure. Keep in mind there are certain precautions you need to observe while doing moderate exercise. For instance, patients doing yoga should avoid inverted positions, such as headstands or shoulder stands, as these exercises can raise their eye pressure. To avoid exercise-related complications, always consult your optometrist before starting a new exercise routine.
- Learn more about your family’s medical history – You’ll need to undergo more frequent screening if your family has a history of glaucoma.
- Incorporate eye-healthy foods into your diet – Eye-healthy foods are rich in zinc, copper, selenium, and vitamins C, E, and A. Also, avoid drinking too much tea or coffee, as large doses of caffeine can increase eye pressure.
- Take small sips of water instead of big gulps – Drinking more than a quart of water within a short amount of time can raise eye pressure. Instead of big gulps, you should take small but frequent sips of water throughout the day.
- Sleep with a slightly raised head – Raise your pillow by about 20 degrees to lower eye pressure.
- Follow up with your doctor – By making a few lifestyle changes and working with your optometrist, you can maintain your target IOP and prevent damage to your vision.