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January Is Glaucoma Awareness Month… So What Is Glaucoma Anyway?

Issue 4.16

Glaucoma is a disease that damages your eye’s optic nerve. It usually happens when fluid builds up in the front part of your eye. That extra fluid increases the pressure in your eye, damaging the optic nerve.

It is estimated that three million Americans have glaucoma, but only about half of them know that they have glaucoma. Glaucoma is a leading cause of blindness for people over 60 years old.  Even with treatment, 15% of people will progress to blindness over 20 years in at least one eye.  At age 60 one has four times the risk of developing glaucoma as one had at 40.  Fortunately, early detection and treatment (with glaucoma eyedrops, glaucoma surgery or both) can optimize preservation of vision.

In a healthy eye, excess fluid leaves the eye through the drainage angle, keeping pressure stable.  The optic nerve is connected to the retina — a layer of light-sensitive tissue lining the inside of the eye — and is made up of many nerve fibers, like an electric cable is made up of many wires. The optic nerve sends signals from your retina to your brain, where these signals are interpreted as the images you see.

In the healthy eye, a clear fluid called aqueous (pronounced AY-kwee-us) humor circulates inside the front portion of your eye. To maintain a constant healthy eye pressure, your eye continually produces a small amount of aqueous humor while an equal amount of this fluid flows out of your eye. If you have glaucoma, the aqueous humor does not flow out of the eye properly. Fluid pressure in the eye builds up and, over time, causes damage to the optic nerve fibers.

The most common form of glaucoma is called primary open-angle glaucoma. It occurs when the trabecular meshwork of the eye gradually becomes less efficient at draining fluid. As this happens, your eye pressure, called intraocular pressure (IOP), rises. Raised eye pressure leads to damage of the optic nerve.

As noted, typically, open-angle glaucoma has no symptoms in its early stages and your vision remains normal. As the optic nerve becomes more damaged, blank spots begin to appear in your field of vision. You usually won’t notice these blank spots in your day-to-day activities until the optic nerve is significantly damaged and these spots become large. If all of the optic nerve fibers die, you will be blind.

What makes glaucoma so frightening is that it often becomes a sudden problem. Most people don’t notice any of the warning signs or symptoms (such as loss of peripheral vision) until well down the road of disease progression.  Because of such lack of symptoms, glaucoma is called “the sneak thief of sight”.  Once vision is lost, it is permanent.

There is little data on how to prevent patients from developing glaucoma but some deterrence techniques include eating a healthy diet, cession of smoking, and maintaining a healthy exercise plan. Aerobic activities are highly recommended and studies have proven that increased intraocular pressure can be lowered by exercise.

Do maintain a healthy weight and keep your blood pressure at a normal level. If you have other medical conditions make sure these are taken care of and controlled. The very best preventive tool of all is a regular visit to your eye doctor for comprehensive eye exam. Let us help you make the safeguarding of your vision your new year’s resolution.  Have you had an eye exam this year?  If the answer is no, it is time to call for an appointment.

For an appointment Dr. May can be contacted at Richens Eye Center 435-986-2020.

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