Glaucoma could be silently killing dozens of vision fibers in your optic nerve right now without you knowing. This silent “thief of sight,” affects more than two million American over the age of 40, and that number could rise to four million by 2030, according to the National Eye Institute.
That is why dedicating a whole month to spreading the word about this incurable disease is so important. January is Glaucoma Awareness month, and Scott & White ophthalmologist and director of the Division of Glaucoma, Derrick S. Fung, MD, said that more people need to know about this disease and how they can prevent permanent eye damage.
“The scariest part about glaucoma is that [patients] don’t even know the disease is affecting them,” Dr. Fung said. “It’s a very slow process. People can go for year or decades and not even realize that they’re slowly going blind.”
If there are no symptoms, then how does someone know they have glaucoma?
“The main way we test for glaucoma is to test the pressures in the eye and examine the optic nerve for damage,” the ophthalmologist said.
If the pressure in the eye is high and the optic nerve is suspicious, more tests are conducted and the patient’s peripheral vision is tested.
“We put all the pieces together and we can usually diagnose glaucoma in the eye clinic,” Dr. Fung said.
Are there conditions that can put someone at higher risk of developing glaucoma?
If someone in your family has glaucoma, you are at a higher risk of developing the disease than someone without a family history of the disease. And if you are African-American or Hispanic, you are also more likely to develop glaucoma.
“One of the strongest risk factors is older age,” the doctor said. “The older you are, the higher your risk for developing glaucoma.”
Being on steroids for COPD or other chronic diseases or having sleep apnea can also put you at a higher risk for developing the disease.
What treatments are available?
“Once someone is diagnosed with glaucoma, it is important that we control the pressure in the eye,” Dr. Fung said. “We have three ways to control the pressure. There’s medication, a laser treatment and surgery. We always try to start with the medicines, but sometimes it’s not enough and we have to try another treatment to keep the pressures under control.”
When the pressure in the eye gets too high, that’s when damage is more likely to occur. So, getting a regular eye exam and being compliant when the doctor prescribes medication is important to keeping the disease from causing further damage.
“Unfortunately, once the damage is done to the vision fibers, the damage is permanent,” the doctor said. “So, our hope is to catch it early and get the pressures under control so we can prevent the damage from getting worse.”
It is important for patients with glaucoma to build a relationship with an ophthalmologist because glaucoma isn’t a one-treatment disease.
“Glaucoma is one of those diseases that’s like high blood pressure or diabetes. We’re going to have to keep watching it closely,” Dr. Fung said. “If you have a long term relationship with your doctor, then he can make sure everything is under control over time.”
For more information about Scott & White ophthalmologists and scheduling your eye exam, check out the Scott & White Eye Institute.