Each month, the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) recognizes one or more observances dedicated to raising awareness about important eye health topics. January is National Glaucoma Awareness Month. The month’s number-one initiative is to spread awareness of the disease and encourage at-risk individuals to receive regular screenings. Since most early symptoms of the disease go unnoticed, annual screenings are the best defense to prevent glaucoma-related vision loss.
At the Dean McGee Eye Institute (DMEI), our physicians strive to provide the best glaucoma care and educate at-risk patients about the disease.
Basics of Glaucoma
Glaucoma is a subset of eye diseases that damage the eye’s optic nerve. The optic nerve is the part of the eye that transfers images from the eyes to the brain. Glaucoma usually develops when there is an increase in pressure in the eye called ocular hypertension.
There are several kinds of glaucoma, but the most common is open-angle glaucoma. In open-angle glaucoma, pressure develops when the eye can’t properly drain fluid. The pressure over time damages the optic nerve.
Less common, but still harmful, forms include angle-closure glaucoma and normal-tension glaucoma. Both can lead to vision loss but are slightly different from open-angle. Angle-closure can have more painful symptoms in addition to vision loss, while normal tension develops without the presence of high eye pressure.
Are There Early Symptoms of Glaucoma?
Unfortunately, early symptoms of glaucoma are extremely difficult to notice without a screening. Dr. Andrew K. Bailey, a glaucoma specialist at DMEI, says the early development of glaucoma is so subtle that it’s difficult to detect.
“In the early ages of disease, it’s very hard for the patient to notice anything is wrong with their sight,” he says.
Vision loss comes on gradually, making it hard for patients to notice a change. Vision loss starts to occur in the eye’s peripheral vision, or side vision. Once vision loss occurs, it’s impossible to reverse it. Without treatment, glaucoma can cause blindness.
Acute Angle-Closure Glaucoma Symptoms
Angle-closure glaucoma has additional symptoms that can appear suddenly. Symptoms can include eye pain, headache, nausea, and even vomiting. When these symptoms occur, they can cause additional vision loss.
Who Is at Risk for Developing Glaucoma?
Aging is a risk factor for glaucoma. Seniors age 60 and older are more at risk than any other age group.
“Developing glaucoma becomes six times more likely after age 60,” Dr. Bailey says.
Patients with diabetes or thyroid disease have a higher risk of developing the disease. Certain medications are also factors for the less common forms of glaucoma. Nasal decongestants, steroids, and bladder agents can increase the risk of acute angle-closure glaucoma.
Individuals who have a family history of glaucoma are at a higher than average risk for developing the disease. It isn’t just the medical history of parents that should be considered, but extended family as well.
“If you have an aunt, uncle, brother, or sister who has glaucoma, you especially need to start early screenings,” Dr. Bailey says.
Race can also increase your chance of developing eye diseases. Asians are more likely to develop angle-closure glaucoma, while African Americans are more likely to develop glaucoma overall.
At What Age Should You Start Getting Eye Screenings?
The AAO recommends that individuals should have a comprehensive eye exam at the age of 40, regardless if they are at risk or not. Based on the outcome of the exam, recommendations can be made by an ophthalmologist for how often exams or screenings are needed. At-risk individuals with a family history of the disease or patients with diabetes will need regular exams.
What can you do to avoid the effects of glaucoma? Dr. Bailey suggests empowering yourself with knowledge.
“Educate yourself about the disease and encourage at-risk family members to get regular screenings,” he says.
If you’re a caretaker for an older adult, help them learn about the risks and encourage them to monitor their eye health through regular screenings and checkups.
What Treatments Are Available?
Traditional treatment options for glaucoma include medicated eye drops, medications, and surgical procedures. More recently, advances in minimally-invasive glaucoma surgery (MIGS) have paved the way to additional treatment options. MIGS offered at DMEI include ABiCTM and can result in reduced dependency on medications and more control of intraocular eye pressure.
Ab-interno canaloplasty (ABiCTM) is a surgical procedure that can be performed early in the glaucoma disease cycle. With a small microcatheter, the eye’s natural drainage system can be reopened to improve the outflow of fluid much like angioplasty helps open clogged arteries. DMEI glaucoma specialist, and 2017 Innovator of the Year winner, Dr. Mahmoud A. Khaimi, pioneered this procedure and has taught it to other physicians at DMEI, across the U.S. and around the world.
DMEI For Preventative Care
DMEI covers all aspects of eye care. From early screenings to advance treatments, our physicians offer a full spectrum of services. Take part in preserving your vision by receiving an annual screening for yourself or a loved one today!