Human eyesight is an incredibly complex system, and a problem anywhere along the way can lead to seriously compromised vision.
One such problem is glaucoma, a group of eye conditions that affect millions of people in the US, making it the second most common cause of vision loss and blindness in the country. In most cases, glaucoma is the result of damage to the optic nerve from increased pressure in the eye.
Intraocular Pressure: A Delicate Balance
The human eye is filled with fluid — aqueous humor in the front chambers, vitreous humor in the larger rear chamber behind the lens. In a healthy eye, the pressure of this fluid remains within a safe range because the amount of aqueous humor being produced is roughly equal to the amount flowing out through the pupil. In an eye with glaucoma, this drainage system does not work the way it should.
2 Common Types Of Glaucoma
At least three million Americans have open-angle glaucoma, which comes on very gradually (over the course of years) and accounts for 90 percent of glaucoma cases. The drainage canals of the eye become clogged, stopping the fluid from draining effectively and causing the pressure to build. Because this process is so slow and vision isn’t noticeably affected until late in the disease, regular comprehensive eye exams are essential for catching it early on and halting its progress.
The second most common type of glaucoma is angle-closure glaucoma. Unlike the gradual progression of open-angle glaucoma, angle-closure glaucoma happens very suddenly, when the iris (the colorful circular muscle that regulates the amount of light that comes in through the pupil) actually blocks the drainage canals. This tends to come with a variety of symptoms, such as headaches, nausea, eye pain, very blurred vision, and rainbows around lights. Get to the eye doctor immediately if you experience these symptoms.
Common Risk Factors
While everyone has some risk of developing glaucoma, certain factors can make it more likely. Glaucoma is far more common in people over 60, particularly African Americans and Hispanics. People of Asian descent are at greater risk of angle-closure glaucoma.
A major risk factor for glaucoma is heredity. Studies estimate that over half of glaucoma cases are familial. Someone with a sibling who has glaucoma is ten times more likely to develop it than someone who doesn’t. Other risk factors include eye injury and steroid use.
Why Early Diagnosis Matters
Vision loss from glaucoma is irreversible and there is currently no cure for the disease, but medication and/or surgery can halt its progress as long as it is diagnosed in time. The key to early diagnosis is regular eye exams, especially for those with a high risk of developing the condition. Make sure you’re familiar with your family’s eye health history, and don’t forget to keep us in the loop!