Catch glaucoma early to minimize vision loss.
The key to minimizing vision loss is early detection and treatment. "When we catch glaucoma early, and closely monitor and treat people, we can significantly slow its progression and minimize vision loss," says Paul Lee, MD, clinical assistant professor of ophthalmology at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine.
What is glaucoma? Glaucoma refers to a group of disorders that can cause increased pressure within the eye, and eventually, damage to the optic nerve, which connects the retina to the brain. A clear, watery fluid (aqueous humor) flows between the lens and the cornea and lubricates the eye. Normally, this fluid leaves the eye through a spongy meshwork at the open angle where the cornea and iris meet. But sometimes the fluid drains too slowly through the meshwork and pressure builds up within the eye, which can cut off blood supply to the optic nerve, eventually leading to blindness. This is known as open-angle glaucoma., and is by far the most common form of the disease.
However, not every person with increased eye pressure will develop glaucoma--it simply means you are at greater risk. According to the National Eye Institute, other risk factors include being 60 or older (especially for Mexican Americans), being African American and over 40, having a family history of the disease, diabetes, hypertension, or a traumatic eye injury.
At first, glaucoma manifests no symptoms. But as the disease progresses, you may notice your peripheral vision slowly deteriorating, and eventually, forward vision may diminish as well, resulting in blindness.
Fortunately, an annual eye examination can catch glaucoma early, and timely treatment can minimize your chances of vision loss, says Dr. Lee.
Managing the condition. Glaucoma treatment is aimed at reducing eye pressure by improving fluid drainage, reducing fluid production, or both. This is accomplished with eye drops, oral medications, laser treatment, surgery, or a combination of approaches.
Eye drops. Eye drops are the most common first-line treatment for glaucoma (see "Glaucoma Eye Drops"). According to Dr. Lee, "Regular, consistent use of eye drops is required to best manage glaucoma."
However, applying eye drops can be difficult, because you need to prevent them from escaping through your tear drainage system (see "How to Apply Eye Drops"). Otherwise, the medication can pass into your sinuses and be absorbed into your bloodstream, where it can cause low or high blood pressure and changes in heart rhythm.
Oral medications. According to Dr. Lee, "In rare instances, if eye drops don't bring your eye pressure down to the desired level, oral medication may need to be taken." Commonly prescribed drugs include acetazolamide (Diamox) and methazolamide (Neptazane). Side effects may include upset stomach, loss of appetite and vomiting, as well as headache, fever, rash, and even seizures.
Surgery. Surgery may be needed to treat glaucoma if other methods prove ineffective. Patients should discuss the following options with their physician:
* Laser surgery. A procedure called trabeculoplasty is being used more often. The doctor uses a high-energy laser beam to shrink part of the trabecular mesh-work, which causes other parts of the meshwork to open up. This procedure is less invasive than conventional surgery and can be done in the doctors office. However, one of the side effects is the development of cataracts.
* Conventional surgery. Dr Lee recommends conventional surgery over laser surgery because "It can decrease eye pressure by as much as 40-50 percent, compared to only 25 percent with laser surgery." The procedure, called a trabeculectomy, is typically done in a hospital or walk-in surgical center.
* Drainage implants. This procedure may be an option for people with secondary glaucoma, in which another disease causes increased eye pressure that damages the optic nerve.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
* Get an annual, comprehensive eye exam that includes careful evaluation of the optic nerve and measurement of eye pressure.
* When seeing your eye doctor, ask what your current pressure is and what your target pressure should be.
* To prevent eye injuries, wear protective goggles when playing sports such as tennis or squash.
RELATED ARTICLE: How to Apply Eye Drops
1. Tilt your head back--it may be easier to do this if you sit in a high-backed chair or lean against the wall.
2. Pull your lower eyelid down to provide a 'pocket' for the drops; apply the drops without your lid (if the hand holding the bottle has a tremor, rest it on the bridge of your nose to steady it).
3. Close your eye and prevent the drops from escaping by placing the tip of your index finger over the inner corner of your eye and gently pressing down for one to three minutes.
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