Glaucoma: Know the signs and save your vision

Did you know that glaucoma is the leading cause of blindness in the United States? According to the National Eye Institute, nearly 3 million people have glaucoma, but 50 percent don’t know they have it. In its early stages, glaucoma has no noticeable symptoms. By the time symptoms become noticeable, your vision could already be impaired. However, if detected early, severe vision loss from glaucoma can be prevented. January is National Glaucoma Awareness Month and now is a good time to learn about how to protect your vision.

What is glaucoma?

Glaucoma is a group of diseases that can result in vision loss and blindness by damaging the eye’s optic nerve. The optic nerve connects the retina to the brain. The retina is a light-sensitive membrane at the back of the eyeball that sends signals to the brain so you can see.

Glaucoma often has no signs, such as pain or changes in vision. Only advanced glaucoma changes your vision. Advanced glaucoma first affects your peripheral or side vision. As it progresses, more noticeable vision problems will occur including permanent vision loss and blindness. The initial start of glaucoma is a collection of fluid that increases eye pressure, which causes nerve damage. Increased eye pressure can be detected during a check by an eye care professional.

What’s my risk?

Anyone can develop the disease, but you may be at a higher risk for developing glaucoma if you:

  • Are African American and age 40 or older
  • Are over age 60, especially if you are Hispanic/Latino
  • Have a family history of the disease

Another risk factor for optic nerve damage relates to blood pressure. Thus, it is important to also make sure that your blood pressure is at a proper level for your body by working with your healthcare provider.

What can I do?

There is no cure for glaucoma. However, medications and surgical procedures can delay the disease’s advance by controlling the fluid pressure in the eye. The greatest defense against vision loss from glaucoma is getting a comprehensive dilated eye exam every year from an eye care professional. During this type of examination, the eye care provider will place drops in your eyes to widen the pupils and look for signs of glaucoma in the optic nerve. According to the National Eye Institute, a comprehensive dilated eye exam can reveal more risk factors, such as high eye pressure, thinness of the cornea and abnormal optic nerve anatomy. In some people with certain combinations of these high-risk factors, medicines in the form of eye drops can reduce the risk of developing glaucoma by about half.

Questions to ask your eye care provider

  • What kinds of tests will be performed?
  • What can I expect to find out from these tests?
  • When will I receive the results?
  • Should I do anything special to prepare for any of the tests?
  • Do these tests have any side effects or risks?
  • How long will my eyes be dilated?
  • I am in one of the higher risk groups for glaucoma, will I need more tests later?