It is often called the silent thief of vision. One of the most troubling conditions to affect the eye , glaucoma indeed sneaks in, with the stealth of a master prowler. It rarely causes warning symptoms and yet is a leading cause of blindness- accounting for 12 percent of new cases of blindness each year in the United States. An estimated two out of every hundred people in the United States over age 65 have glaucoma. Younger people can be affected as well. And it is estimated that half of those with glaucoma do not know that they have it. Understandably, detecting and managing glaucoma is of major concern to eye doctors.
It is not a simple disease. In most cases glaucoma is instead a collection of eye problems that elevate pressure within the eye, damaging the optic nerve, and seriously affecting vision. Its onset is furtive, usually very gradual over several years; during this time people seldom have any symptoms to alert them of their elevated eye pressure. Most people who develop glaucoma can’t feel it. Even the loss of peripheral vision, one of the first signs of trouble, is so subtle that for many people it’s virtually unnoticeable.(Some people even develop optic nerve damage and visual field loss despite having normal eye pressures – known as normotensive glaucoma.)
One form of the disease, called acute closed-angle glaucoma, in which the pressure in the eye rises rapidly, does cause acute eye pain. This condition hits suddenly and is an ophthalmic emergency that requires immediate treatment. But it’s also pretty rare.
The more common form is called open-angle glaucoma. This is our old nemesis, the silent thief. Open-angle glaucoma can advance undetected for years; during this time the constantly elevated eye pressure can cause irreversible vision loss by severely damaging the nerve fibers that pass through the optic nerve in the back of the eye. The nerve fibers most frequently damaged by this are those that make peripheral vision, in which people can see only when they’re looking directly ahead. In people with very advance cases of glaucoma, this loss of vision can deteriorate into total blindness. For preventative measures, seek an eye doctor qualified and experienced in performing trabeculectomies.
What’s your best protection against the potentially devastating consequences of glaucoma? Because its onset is so insidious, don’t trust yourself to notice early onset symptoms; chances are, you won’t. But your eye doctor will. This means that regular eye exams are essential! Only by monitoring the eyes regularly can glaucoma be detected early and managed well.