Silently stealing sight: Glaucoma affects millions, often without warning
Special to The Union
It’s called the “thief of sight.” It tends to come without symptoms and begin to erode your vision, often without warning.
This all too common disease is glaucoma. Currently, more than 3 million Americans are living with glaucoma. With numbers increasing at a brisk rate, the National Eye Institute estimates that by 2030, more than 4 million people will be affected – a 58 percent increase in just ten years.
“Glaucoma is the leading cause of irreversible blindness,” explains Dr. Cheri Leng, ophthalmologist at Sierra View Medical Eye, Inc. “As many as half the people living with glaucoma don’t even realize they have it. That’s where regular eye exams can help – by catching the disease early.”
Glaucoma is a condition in which damage to the optic nerve causes vision loss. The optic nerve is responsible for carrying images from the eye to the brain. Even if the eye and the brain are healthy, sight is lost if the optic nerve is damaged.
“Glaucoma is linked to elevated pressure inside your eye,” explains Dr. Leng. “That increased pressure stresses and eventually damages the optic nerve. If the damage to the nerve is allowed to worsen, it will eventually cause permanent vision loss, sometimes within a few years.”
Dr. Leng explains that a healthy eye maintains a normal pressure that is a balance between the internal formation of a fluid called aqueous humor which nourishes the eye, and the outflow of that same fluid. Each one of us has an ideal pressure that differs depending on the structural characteristics of each person’s eye. As we age, the outflow channels become less efficient at draining fluid, leading to a buildup of fluid and elevated eye pressure.
Other causes of glaucoma include a blunt or chemical injury to your eye, severe eye infection, blocked blood vessels inside your eye due to diabetes and other vascular diseases, and inflammatory conditions. Anyone can be at risk for glaucoma however it is more common as we age and is six to eight times more common in African Americans than Caucasians, occurring more often and at a younger age and with more severe vision loss.
“Glaucoma also tends to run in families,” says Dr. Leng. “It’s important to know if you have a family history of glaucoma and to share that with your eye health provider.”
Most people with glaucoma have no early symptoms or pain. That’s why it is critical to see your eye doctor regularly.
“The damage caused by glaucoma can’t be reversed,” Dr. Leng explains. “But if we are able to spot it in the early stages through regular checkups, there are treatments we can offer which can help slow and prevent vision loss.”
Glaucoma is treated by lowering your eye pressure (intraocular pressure). This treatment may include prescription eyedrops, laser treatments, surgery, oral medications, or a combination of any of these.
There are also lifestyle changes you can make that may help you control high eye pressure or promote eye health:
— Exercise safely. Regular exercise may reduce eye pressure in certain types of glaucoma. Talk to your doctor about an appropriate exercise program.
— Limit your caffeine. Drinking beverages with large amounts of caffeine may increase your eye pressure.
— Sip fluids frequently. Drink only moderate amounts of fluids at any given time during the course of a day. Drinking a quart or more of any liquid within a short time may temporarily increase eye pressure.
— Sleep with your head elevated. Using a wedge pillow that keeps your head slightly raised, about 20 degrees, has been shown to reduce intraocular pressure while you sleep.
— Eat a healthy diet. Several vitamins and nutrients are important to eye health, including zinc, copper, selenium, and antioxidant vitamins C, E, and A.
— Take medications as prescribed.
And most importantly, don’t put off being proactive about your eye health.
“Regular eye exams are important for a number of reasons, including early detection of glaucoma,” says Dr. Leng. “Remember, once your vision is gone, we can’t get it back.”
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