What is glaucoma?

Are you aware that glaucoma is the second leading cause of blindness, globally? This condition affects about three million people in the United States alone, and if it’s left untreated, it can permanently impact vision. What, exactly, is glaucoma? Would you know if you had it? How is it treated? Here’s all you need to know about this common but serious eye condition.

Glaucoma is actually a term that covers a group of eye disorders. These disorders cause damage to the optic nerve due to fluid buildup in the eye. To understand glaucoma, it’s important to know that a fluid called aqueous humor is constantly being created by the eye. This fluid drains out continually, to keep the pressure in the eye (intraocular pressure, or IOP) stable. If the area through which the fluid drains, called the drainage angle, is not working correctly, the fluid builds up, increasing IOP and damaging the optic nerve.

The optic nerve sends signals from the retina to the brain, and it’s actually made up of over a million nerve fibers. When eye pressure starts building, it damages these fibers. As they die, blind spots develop in the person’s vision. When all of the fibers have died, the person becomes blind.

Glaucoma can affect anyone, but older people are at higher risk. A person’s ethnicity plays a role, too. Someone of African or Latin descent has a heightened risk of glaucoma, and Asian and Inuit people are more likely to have one specific type of glaucoma. People with diabetes have double the risk of other people, and factors like farsightedness, nearsightedness, a previous eye injury or surgery, hypertension, use of corticosteroids, and a family history of glaucoma are also risk factors. In some cases, people without increased eye pressure can get glaucoma. In those cases, it’s diagnosed by signs like blind spots in the field of vision or optic nerve damage.

In its early stages, glaucoma has no symptoms, and people often don’t even know they have it. This is one reason regular eye exams are important. Only through a complete eye exam can an ophthalmologist determine whether a person has glaucoma, but an early diagnosis is crucial for successful treatment. Checking the eye pressure is not enough; the doctor will also inspect the eye’s drainage angle, examine and measure the optic nerve, test the peripheral vision, and measure the cornea’s thickness.

Glaucoma damage is permanent and irreversible, but when it’s caught early, glaucoma can be treated to prevent further damage. Treatments include:

  • Medication, typically in eyedrop form: Prescription eyedrops can decrease fluids and increase drainage, and these two things together will relieve IOP.
  • Laser treatment: Using a laser, the doctor can improve fluid drainage. Some laser treatments can be repeated, and the results can last up to five years.
  • Surgical procedures: A trabeculectomy involves creating a tiny flap in the sclera, along with a bubble in the conjunctiva called a filtration bleb. These allow the aqueous humor to drain from the eye and be absorbed into the surrounding tissue. Another option is to insert a tiny glaucoma drainage device. Some people have narrow angles, meaning that the iris and cornea are too close together, making the drainage angle too narrow. For those people, removing the eye’s natural lens through cataract surgery can lower IOP.

The best way to prevent serious complications from glaucoma is to see an eye doctor regularly. Whenever you need eye care, contact Denver Eye Surgeons. The premier multi-specialty vision care practice in Denver, Colorado, Denver Eye Surgeons offers a wide range of eye care services, providing the best care in a friendly environment. We offer comprehensive eye exams to help keep your vision healthy, as well as advanced eye care services, using the most innovative treatments in procedures performed by experienced medical professionals. Our community-focused practice has the best doctors and the best staff, all here to meet the needs of you and your family. Call 303.279.6600 or contact us through our website!


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