It’s estimated that 3 million people in the United States live with glaucoma, yet up to half of them may not know they have the disease. The doctors at the Eye Care Center of Kauai, in Lihue, Hawaii, urge adults to get regular eye examinations so that glaucoma can be caught at an early stage, while it can be treated before you have irreversible damage to the optic nerve and loss of vision.

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What is glaucoma?

Glaucoma refers to a group of eye diseases that all have one thing in common, they damage the optic nerve. Since the optic nerve can’t repair itself, the damage is permanent. If glaucoma isn’t diagnosed and treated, ongoing nerve damage leads to vision loss and ultimately blindness.

Most types of glaucoma are caused by high intraocular pressure. Fluids inside the eye create pressure, which helps the eye maintain its shape. Normally the eye regulates the amount of fluid to keep the pressure at a healthy level. When this system isn’t working properly, excess fluid in the eye increases the pressure, which in turn, damages the optic nerve.

The most common types of glaucoma include:

  • Open-angle glaucoma: Accounts for 70-90% of cases
  • Angle-closure glaucoma acute: Considered a medical emergency resulting from a rapid rise in eye pressure.
  • Normal-tension glaucoma: An exception because eye pressure stays normal yet the optic nerve is damaged.
  • Congenital glaucoma: An inherited condition affecting infants
  • Juvenile glaucoma: Type of open-angle glaucoma affecting children, adolescents, and young adults.

What are the symptoms of glaucoma?

Open-angle glaucoma develops gradually and doesn’t have any symptoms in the early stage. The first symptom is the loss of vision and by then, the optic nerve is damaged.

Without symptoms to alert you that eye pressure is high, the only way to prevent optic nerve damage from glaucoma is by getting regular eye examinations that detect it at an early stage.

Like open-angle glaucoma, the chronic form of angle-closure glaucoma develops slowly over time and doesn’t have symptoms.

Acute angle-closure develops so rapidly that it causes pain, nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, and the appearance of halos around lights. Acute angle-closure must be treated quickly or blindness can occur in 1-2 days.

How is glaucoma treated?

Glaucoma isn’t curable, so the goal of treatment is to lower eye pressure and keep it within a normal range.

Treatment begins with eye drops that contain various types of medications to lower eye pressure. These medications work by either increasing the amount of fluid that leaves the eye, or by reducing the amount of fluid being produced.

If eye drops can’t keep eye pressure controlled, laser or conventional surgery can be performed.

Surgery also focuses on improving the flow of fluid out of the eye, sometimes by implanting a tiny shunt to help drain the fluid.