Glaucoma (Diagnosis and Management)
- Severe eye or brow pain
- Redness of the eye
- Decreased or blurred vision
- Seeing colored rainbows or halos
Glaucoma is a disease that damages the eye’s optic nerve. The optic nerve is connected to the retina — a layer of light-sensitive tissue lining the back of the eye — and is made up of many nerve fibers, like an electric cable is made up of many wires. It is the optic nerve that sends signals from your retina to your brain, where these signals are interpreted as the images you see.
Glaucoma can cause blindness if it is left untreated. Only about half of the estimated three million Americans who have glaucoma are even aware that they have the condition. When glaucoma develops, usually you don’t have any early symptoms and the disease progresses slowly. In this way, glaucoma can steal your sight very gradually. Fortunately, early detection and treatment (with glaucoma eyedrops, glaucoma surgery or both) can help preserve your vision.
There are several types of glaucoma:
Closed-angle glaucoma (or Narrow-angle glaucoma or Angle-closure glaucoma)
The most common form of glaucoma is called primary open-angle glaucoma. It occurs when the trabecular meshwork of the eye gradually becomes less efficient at draining fluid. As this happens, your eye pressure, called intraocular pressure (IOP), rises. Raised eye pressure leads to damage of the optic nerve. Damage to the optic nerve can occur at different eye pressures among different patients. Your ophthalmologist (Eye M.D.) establishes a target eye pressure for you that he or she predicts will protect your optic nerve from further damage. Different patients have different target pressures.
Typically, open-angle glaucoma has no symptoms in its early stages and your vision remains normal. As the optic nerve becomes more damaged, blank spots begin to appear in your field of vision. You usually won’t notice these blank spots in your day-to-day activities until the optic nerve is significantly damaged and these spots become large. If all the optic nerve fibers die, blindness results.
Half of patients with glaucoma do not have high eye pressure when first examined. Some such individuals will only occasionally have high eye pressures on repeat testing; thus, a single eye pressure test misses many with glaucoma. In addition to routine eye pressure testing, it is essential that the optic nerve be examined by an ophthalmologist for proper diagnosis.
Eye pressure is expressed in millimeters of mercury (mm Hg), the same unit of measurement used in weather barometers.
Although normal eye pressure is considered a measurement less than 21 mm Hg, this can be misleading. Some people have a type of glaucoma called normal-tension, or low-tension glaucoma. Their eye pressure is consistently below 21 mm Hg, but optic nerve damage and visual field loss still occur. People with normal-tension glaucoma typically receive the same methods of treatment used for open-angle glaucoma. Conversely, ocular hypertension is a condition where someone has higher eye pressure than normal, but does not have other signs of glaucoma, such as optic nerve damage or blank spots that show up in their peripheral (side) vision when tested. Individuals with ocular hypertension are at higher risk for developing glaucoma later relative to those with lower, or average, eye pressure. Just like people with glaucoma, people with ocular hypertension need to be closely monitored by an ophthalmologist to ensure they receive appropriate treatment.
Closed-angle glaucoma, narrow-angle glaucoma or angle-closure glaucoma
A less common form of glaucoma is closed angle (or narrow-angle glaucoma or angle-closure glaucoma). Closed-angle glaucoma occurs when the drainage angle of the eye becomes blocked. Unlike open-angle glaucoma, eye pressure usually goes up very fast. The pressure rises because the iris — the colored part of the eye — partially or completely blocks off the drainage angle. People of Asian descent and those with hyperopia (farsightedness) tend to be more at risk for developing this form of glaucoma.If the drainage angle becomes completely blocked, eye pressure rises quickly resulting in a closed-angle glaucoma attack. Symptoms of an attack include:
A closed-angle glaucoma attack is a medical emergency and must be treated immediately. Unfortunately, people at risk for developing closed-angle glaucoma often have few or no symptoms before the attack.People at risk for closed-angle glaucoma should avoid over-the-counter decongestants and other medications where the packaging states not to use these products if you have glaucoma.
Congenital glaucoma is a rare type of glaucoma that develops in infants and young children and can be inherited. While uncommon relative to the other types of glaucoma, this condition can be devastating, often resulting in blindness when not diagnosed and treated early.
Secondary glaucoma is glaucoma that results from another eye condition or disease. For example, someone who has had an eye injury, someone who is on long-term steroid therapy or someone who has a tumor may develop secondary glaucoma.
Glaucoma Treatment and Management
Medicated eyedrops are the most common way to treat glaucoma. These medications lower your eye pressure in one of two ways either by slowing the production of aqueous humor or by improving the flow through the drainage angle. These eyedrops must be taken every day. Just like any other medication, it is important to take your eyedrops regularly as prescribed by your ophthalmologist. Never change or stop taking your medications without talking with your doctor. If you are about to run out of your medication, ask your doctor if you should have it refilled.
If you have glaucoma, it is important to tell your ophthalmologist about your other medical conditions and all other medications you currently take. Bring a list of your medications with you to your eye appointment. Also tell your primary care doctor and any other doctors caring for you what glaucoma medication you take.
In some patients with glaucoma, surgery is recommended. Glaucoma surgery improves the flow of fluid out of the eye, resulting in lower eye pressure.
A surgery called laser trabeculoplasty is often used to treat open-angle glaucoma. There are two types of trabeculoplasty surgery: argon laser trabeculoplasty (ALT) and selective laser trabeculoplasty (SLT). During ALT surgery, a laser makes tiny, evenly spaced burns in the trabecular meshwork. The laser does not create new drainage holes, but rather stimulates the drain to function more efficiently.
With SLT, a low level energy laser targets specific cells in the mesh-like drainage channels using very short applications of light. The treatment has been shown to lower eye pressure at rates comparable to ALT. Even if laser trabeculoplasty is successful, most patients continue taking glaucoma medications after surgery. For many, this surgery is not a permanent solution. Nearly half who receive this surgery develop increased eye pressure again within five years. Many people who have had a successful laser trabeculoplasty have a repeat treatment. Laser trabeculoplasty can also be used as a first line of treatment for patients who are unwilling or unable to use glaucoma eyedrops.
Laser iridotomy is recommended for treating people with closed-angle glaucoma and those with very narrow drainage angles. A laser creates a small hole about the size of a pinhead through the top part of the iris to improve the flow of aqueous fluid to the drainage angle.
In trabeculectomy, a small flap is made in the sclera (the outer white coating of your eye). A filtration bleb, or reservoir, is created under the conjunctiva — the thin, filmy membrane that covers the white part of your eye. Once created, the bleb looks like a bump or blister on the white part of the eye above the iris, but the upper eyelid usually covers it. The aqueous humor can now drain through the flap made in the sclera and collect in the bleb, where the fluid will be absorbed into blood vessels around the eye.
Eye pressure is effectively controlled in three out of four people who have trabeculectomy. Although regular follow-up visits with your doctor are still necessary, many patients no longer need to use eyedrops. If the new drainage channel closes or too much fluid begins to drain from the eye, additional surgery may be needed.
Aqueous shunt surgery
If trabeculectomy cannot be performed, aqueous shunt surgery is usually successful in lowering eye pressure. An aqueous shunt is a small plastic tube or valve connected on one end to a reservoir (a roundish or oval plate). The shunt is an artificial drainage device and is implanted in the eye through a tiny incision. The shunt redirects aqueous humor to an area beneath the conjunctiva (the thin membrane that covers the inside of your eyelids and the white part of your eye). The fluid is then absorbed into the blood vessels. When healed, the reservoir is not easily seen unless you look downward and lift your eyelid.
Important things to remember about glaucoma: There are a number of ways to treat glaucoma. While some people may experience side effects from glaucoma medications or glaucoma surgery, the risks of side effects should always be balanced with the greater risk of leaving glaucoma untreated and losing vision. If you have glaucoma, preserving your vision requires strong teamwork between you and your doctor. Your doctor can prescribe treatment, but it’s important to do your part by following your treatment plan closely. Be sure to take your medications as prescribed and see your ophthalmologist regularly.
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