For those of us who are able to see, it is easy to take our vision for granted.
Maybe we need to use contacts or glasses. Maybe we curse the fact we have to wear bifocals or reading glasses; but at least we can see. Many people who have lost their vision would give anything to have to wear bifocals or reading glasses. Vision is one of our most precious senses, yet it is also one that can be taken away. The second leading cause of blindness, after cataracts, is glaucoma.
Glaucoma affects more than 3 million people in the U.S. Many with glaucoma do not know they have the condition, though there are easy ways to check for it. For these folks, glaucoma is a time bomb which could lead to blindness if not identified and treated.
What is glaucoma? It is increased pressure inside the eye. This high pressure damages the optic nerve – the main nerve connecting the eye to the brain. If the optic nerve is injured, a person’s vision suffers, and one can become completely blind.
One reason glaucoma is so dangerous is usually it does not cause symptoms. If you have glaucoma, your eyes do not hurt. They are not red, and in the early stages your vision may seem to be fine, but the increased pressure inside your eye is silently hurting the optic nerve.
When a person with glaucoma does notice a problem with their vision, it is usually blurriness at the edge of vision. You can see things clearly if you’re looking straight at them, but things at the margins start to get blurry. This is referred to as “tunnel vision.” By the time you start noticing your vision getting worse, it is usually too late to repair the loss.
The good news about glaucoma is it is easy to tell if you have it. Your personal doctor, clinician or optometrist can do a simple and painless test for glaucoma. Actually, there are several ways to check for it, including looking into the back of your eye with a strong light, checking your vision carefully, or using a machine to blow air at your eye to check how much pressure it has. For those people who are at risk for developing glaucoma, it is important to be tested regularly.
Who should be worried about glaucoma? Anyone can get it, but it is more likely for some folks than others.
Glaucoma tends to develop as people get older. Being tested for it should start at around age 40, even though the risk is still small at that age. As one gets close to 55 or 60, the risk gets somewhat higher and people should be tested more often, usually about once one or two years. African-Americans have the highest rate of glaucoma of all major ethnic groups. Latinos also have a higher rate than others. Finally, glaucoma tends to run in families, so if someone in your family has it you have a higher risk.
What can be done about glaucoma? It is usually easy to treat with eye drops. Sometimes one type of eye drop is all that is needed. Some people need to be treated with two different eye drops. Occasionally, when eye drops are no longer working, laser treatments or eye surgery are necessary.
The key point here is that if you have glaucoma, it can be treated, and you can almost always avoid blindness.
So, take good care of your vision, and ask your doctor about being checked for glaucoma.
Richard Fleming, M.D, is the Regional Medical director with Partnership Healthplan of California, a member of Solano Coalition for Better Health.