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Glaucoma is called “the sneak thief of sight” because people who have the disease do not see or feel anything unusual until there is irreversible nerve damage and vision loss. More than 3 million Americans have glaucoma, but half of those people do not know they have the disease.1 Those people risk vision impairment or blindness. According to the World Health Organization, glaucoma is the second leading cause of blindness worldwide.
Anyone can get glaucoma - even children - but some groups are at high risk. African Americans, diabetics, people over 60, those with a family history of glaucoma and severely nearsighted people are most likely to get glaucoma. But even if you or someone you know has none of these risk factors, glaucoma is still possible.
Because glaucoma “sneaks” in without symptoms, only a doctor’s eye exam can detect the disease.
People who do not have routine eye exams may have glaucoma and not know it. Again, it is important to understand that glaucoma causes no pain, and people have no visual problems in the early stages. Only a doctor can tell if a person has glaucoma.
Glaucoma is a progressive disease, meaning it gets worse over time. If a person does not get regular eye exam and glaucoma goes undiagnosed and untreated, then as it gets worse, high pressure inside the eye damages the optic nerve. This damage impairs vision. It cannot be reversed. Vision loss begins around the edges of the visual field. Eventually, a person’s central vision will become blurry, and then the person will go blind.
Glaucoma gets worse over time, but if a doctor catches it early, the disease is highly treatable. Optometrists screen all patients for glaucoma during routine eye exams. People with a family history of glaucoma also should see an ophthalmologist who treats the disease for a full evaluation of the optic nerve.
Once glaucoma is diagnosed, doctors and patients work together to control the pressure and prevent nerve damage and vision loss. All it takes is early treatment and regular follow-up visits. A doctor determines the best options, which can include eye drop medications, laser treatment, minimally invasive glaucoma surgery (MIGS) implants, and traditional glaucoma surgeries.
If someone sees a doctor after nerve damage has occurred, it cannot be reversed, but it may be possible to prevent additional damage.
Eye doctors screen every patient for glaucoma and help everyone who is diagnosed with the disease. But they cannot help people who never visit their offices. Make sure you and your family and friends have regular eye exams. Exams are the only detection for glaucoma, and early detection and treatment of glaucoma are the only ways to prevent vision loss from this disease.
Ehsan Sadri, MD, FACS, FAAO practices at Atlantis Eyecare in Los Angeles, CA.
1 The Eye Diseases Prevalence Research Group. Prevalence of Open-Angle Glaucoma Among Adults in the United States. Arch Ophthalmol. 2004 Apr; 122(4): 532–538. doi: 10.1001/archopht.122.4.532
Last reviewed on March 17, 2017