Glaucoma is one of the leading causes of visual impairment and severe irreversible blindness in the world, along with macular degeneration. In the United States, glaucoma affects more than 3 million Americans, and globally, it’s estimated to cause visual impairment for 5.7 million people. The scary thing is that many people, half by some estimates, don’t even know that they have the disease.
Medical treatment is essential to prevent further damage from glaucoma, but there are also certain foods and supplements that can help to improve symptoms and fight eye damage. In fact, the use of complementary and alternative medicine in glaucoma has received interest from ophthalmologists and patients.
One thing is for sure — it’s a very serious condition that can lead to permanent vision loss if left untreated.
What is Glaucoma?
Glaucoma is the second leading cause of blindness in the world, accounting for 9–12 percent of all blindness cases in the United States. African Americans are 15 times more likely to lose vision from glaucoma than caucasians. People over 60 are also considered high-risk.
When left untreated, glaucoma can cause blindness, and sadly, about 10 percent of people who are receiving proper treatment will still develop irreversible vision loss. Once vision is lost from glaucoma, it cannot be regained, which is why early detection and proper treatment is vital.
Types of Glaucoma
There are several types of glaucoma, with the two most common being open-angle and angle-closure glaucoma. Both involve an increase of intraocular pressure within the eye. Here’s a breakdown of those types, plus other less common forms of glaucoma:
- Primary open-angle glaucoma: This is the most common form, accounting for about 90 percent of all cases. It’s also referred to as primary or chronic glaucoma. It’s caused by the slow clogging of the drainage canals, which results in increased eye pressure. Open-angle glaucoma develops slowly and is known to be a lifelong condition. With open-angle glaucoma, there’s a wide and open angle between the iris and cornea. According to research published in American Family Physician, risk factors for this type of glaucoma include older age, black race, Hispanic origin, family history of glaucoma and diabetes.
- Primary angle-closure glaucoma: This is a less common form. With angle-closure glaucoma, blocked drainage canals cause a sudden rise in intraocular pressure. With this type of glaucoma, there’s a narrow angle between the iris and cornea. Angle-closure glaucoma demands immediate medical attention and typically, the symptoms are very noticeable. Risk factors for this type of glaucoma include older age, Asian descent and female sex.
- Normal-tension glaucoma: With normal-tension glaucoma, eye pressure isn’t very high, but the optic nerve is damaged.
- Congenital (childhood) glaucoma: With this type of glaucoma, the eye’s drainage canals haven’t developed correctly during the prenatal period. This is a rare, likely inherited condition that’s often treated with surgery.
One of the scariest things about glaucoma is that there may be no symptoms to warn you of its development and progression. In fact, the most common type of glaucoma develops slowly and can go on for years before a person notices.
With open-angle or chronic glaucoma, there’s no pain with the increased eye pressure. For some people, it’s hard to even notice the peripheral or side vision loss, and it only becomes noticeable when they’ve experienced significant vision loss already. Vision sharpness is typically maintained until late in the disease progression.
Because there aren’t obvious glaucoma symptoms, it’s so important to undergo routine eye exams. Your doctor will measure the intraocular pressure, test for optic nerve damage, check for vision loss, measure your corneal thickness and inspect the angle of drainage. All of these factors will help him or her diagnose glaucoma and begin treatment immediately.
Causes and Prevention
Glaucoma is caused by the build-up of fluid in the eye that puts pressure on the optic nerve, retina and lens. This pressure, which is referred to as intraocular pressure, can permanently damage the eye if it’s not treated.
The cause is the accumulation of waste related to aging, high blood pressure, prescription drugs, eye injury or other eye-related illnesses. Studies show that reducing intraocular pressure significantly delays glaucoma progression by improving optic disc damage and visual field loss.
The groups of people at the highest risk for developing glaucoma include the following:
- African Americans
- People over 60 years old
- Hispanics over 60
- Family history of glaucoma
- People using steroids
- People with eye injuries (such as those that bruise or penetrate the eye)
The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends that adults get regular eye exams, especially as they age and if they have other risk factors for glaucoma. Early identification of glaucoma allows for immediate treatment and lowers morbidity of the disease.
Conventional Glaucoma Treatment
Conventional glaucoma treatment includes prescription eye drops, medications, laser therapy and surgery in order to slow visual field loss by lowering intraocular pressure.
Conventional glaucoma treatment will typically begin with eye drop medications that are made with drugs to reduce eye pressure and the production of fluid in the eye. Prostaglandins and beta blockers are two examples of prescription eye drops. If the eye drops do not work to reduce pressure, an oral medication may be prescribed.
Laser therapy is also sometimes used to open clogged channels in the eye, and surgery may be performed to drain excess fluid from the eye and reduce pressure.