What is glaucoma?Picture of a woman receiving a glaucoma screening

Glaucoma is a group of diseases that can damage the eye’s optic nerve and result in vision loss and blindness; it occurs when the normal fluid pressure inside the eyes slowly rises. However, with early treatment, you can often protect your eyes against serious vision loss.

What is the optic nerve?

The optic nerve is a bundle of more than 1 million nerve fibers. It connects the retina to the brain. The retina is the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye. A healthy optic nerve is necessary for good vision.

Causes and Risk Factors

How does open-angle glaucoma damage the optic nerve?

In the front of the eye is a space called the anterior chamber. A clear fluid flows continuously in and out of the chamber and nourishes nearby tissues. The fluid leaves the chamber at the open angle where the cornea and iris meet. When the fluid reaches the angle, it flows through a spongy meshwork, like a drain, and leaves the eye.

Does increased eye pressure mean that I have glaucoma?

Not necessarily. Increased eye pressure means you are at risk, but does not mean you have the disease. A person has glaucoma only if the optic nerve is damaged. If you have increased eye pressure but no damage to the optic nerve, you do not have glaucoma. However, you are at risk.

Can I develop glaucoma if I have increased eye pressure?

Not necessarily. Not every person with increased eye pressure will develop the disease. Some people can tolerate higher eye pressure better than others. Also, a certain level of eye pressure may be high for one person but normal for another. Whether you develop glaucoma depends on the level of pressure your optic nerve can tolerate without being damaged. This level is different for each person.

Can I develop glaucoma without an increase in my eye pressure?

Yes. Glaucoma can develop without increased eye pressure. This form is called low-tension or normal-tension glaucoma. It is not as common as open-angle glaucoma.

Who is at risk for glaucoma?

Anyone can develop glaucoma. Some people are at higher risk than others. They include:

  • African Americans over age 40
  • Everyone over age 60, especially Mexican Americans
  • People with a family history of glaucoma

What are the symptoms?

At first, there are no symptoms. Vision stays normal, and there is no pain. However, as the disease progresses, a person with glaucoma may notice his or her side vision gradually failing. That is, objects in front may still be seen clearly, but objects to the side may be missed.

As the disease remains untreated, people may miss objects to the side and out of the corner of their eye. Without treatment, people with glaucoma will slowly lose their peripheral (side) vision. They seem to be looking through a tunnel. Over time, straight-ahead vision may decrease until no vision remains. Glaucoma can develop in one or both eyes.

Treatment

Can glaucoma be treated?

Yes. Immediate treatment for early stage, open-angle glaucoma can delay progression of the disease. That’s why early diagnosis is very important.

Treatments include medicines, laser trabeculoplasty, conventional surgery, or a combination of any of these. While these treatments may save remaining vision, they do not improve sight already lost as a result of the disease.

Information obtained from the National Eye Institute website:www.nei.nih.gov