By Kristen Behrens, OD
Glaucoma is a group of ocular diseases that affect the optic nerve. The optic nerve is the portion of the eye responsible for relaying visual signals from the eye to the brain. It is comprised of 1 million individual nerve fibers, which become permanently damaged as a result of glaucoma. Damage to these nerve fibers causes loss of vision, and, in advanced cases, may lead to blindness.
Glaucoma is the second leading cause of blindness in the United States. Therefore, it is important to identify those who are at risk and test for the disease early and frequently. Typically, individuals over the age of 40, African Americans, and individuals with a family history of glaucoma are at greater risk. Elevated eye pressure, thin corneas, and certain ocular and systemic conditions may also increase one’s risk for developing the condition. All factors are evaluated by an eye care provider when diagnosing the disease.
The most common form of glaucoma, “open-angle glaucoma”, is typically asymptomatic. Therefore, without an eye examination it may go undetected. During an examination, an eye care provider carefully evaluates, among other things, eye pressure and the appearance of the optic nerve. If there are signs of glaucoma, further testing is indicated.
Such additional testing includes automated visual fields, which detect loss of vision. When vision loss begins, it typically first affects the periphery but may progress to encroach on central vision in advanced stages. Visual fields may be done once or twice a year to monitor how rapidly and severely vision loss is occurring. Optical coherence tomography (OCT) measures that amount of optic nerve tissue present and indicates whether nerve fibers have been damaged and lost. This test may also be performed multiple times a year to monitor progression. Digital retinal photographs are also helpful in objectively comparing the appearance of the optic nerve from year to year.
Glaucoma is treated by reducing eye pressure. In most cases, this is accomplished with prescription eye drops. A daily regimen of instilling eye drops can help slow the progression of vision loss. In some instances, topical treatment may be ineffective or not indicated for the specific type of glaucoma present. In these cases surgical treatment may be necessary.
While there is no cure for glaucoma, its progression can be slowed with proper treatment. It is important to have regular, dilated eye examinations to detect it early before significant vision loss occurs.
If you believe you are at risk for glaucoma, schedule an appointment with your eye care provider. Whittier Street Health Center offers Eye Care services that cover a wide range of visual problems and eye disease. To contact the Eye Care/Optometry Department, call (617) 989-3058, or schedule an appointment online at https://wshc.org/make-an-appointment/
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