Ten million Americans have glaucoma, though only an estimated 2 million to 4 million have been diagnosed with the often symptomless disease. During National Glaucoma Awareness Month in January, medical professionals and glaucoma patients alike urge people to have their eyes examined for the disease, which can result in blindness when left untreated. In the U.S., as many as 116,000 people are legally blind due to glaucoma, and an estimated 5,500 new cases of disease-related blindness are reported each year.
Described as "the sneak thief of sight," glaucoma results from elevated eye pressure that damages the optic nerve, resulting in loss of side vision that progresses unless treated. It is exceedingly important for people to seek examinations for glaucoma, especially if it runs in your family. Those with a family history of the disease and who are in a high-risk group should have a comprehensive eye examination annually from the age of 35. For others, a complete exam is suggested every two years to monitor for signs of open-angle glaucoma, which tends to develop after 40. Evaluating patients for signs of glaucoma can be compared to checking for high blood pressure, which also has few symptoms but can result in serious problems if not controlled. If glaucoma is detected early, treatment can prevent the terrible consequences of eventual blindness.
While there are several forms of the disease, typically only acute angle-closure glaucoma produces symptoms, including blurred vision, browaches, severe eye pain, haloes around lights, nausea and vomiting. Though rare, this serious form of glaucoma demands immediate evaluation and treatment to avoid vision loss.
Often glaucoma sufferers will experience gradual, progressive vision loss before they are diagnosed. They will turn to eye drops or various laser treatments before coming under a glaucoma specialist's care. One particularly effective triple procedure is a trabeculectomy, which increases drainage to reduce intraocular pressure, plus the removal of a cataract and implantation of an intraocular lens.
While patients' cases may vary in severity and complexity, many treatment options are now available as a result of medical advancement. Glaucoma patients have access to a wide range of topical medications, including eye drops, contact lens-like inserts and gel-forming solutions, as well as newer laser and conventional surgical procedures. We are truly blessed to live in an era where these types of treatments are available.
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