Glaucoma: Early Detection Can Save Your Sight

Written by Robert L. Stamper, M.D.. Posted in Family Health.

Glaucoma is the second most common cause of preventable blindness in the U.S. Approximately 2 million Americans have glaucoma. Another one million do not know they have the disease. With early diagnosis and treatment, the vast majority of people can retain their vision for life. The key is early diagnosis, which can only be obtained by regular, routine eye exams.

In a healthy eye, fluid is constantly being made and drained through a microscopic, drainage canal. When something blocks or prevents this natural drainage, the pressure inside the eye goes up. Glaucoma is often caused by increased pressure that can develop when the fluids in the eye are not draining properly. This condition eventually damages the nerve that connects the eye to the brain (the optic nerve) and leads to loss of vision. In most cases, a person's side vision (peripheral vision) is noticeably affected.

While occasionally, the condition may come on suddenly; most cases progress so slowly there are often no warning signs before damage inside the eye has already occurred. Glaucoma may affect people of any age from newborns to the elderly but is more common in adults as they approach their senior years. African-Americans, Hispanics and people with diabetes are also at higher risk of getting the disease.

Glaucoma can be treated with any of the following:
• Eye drops that lower eye pressure
• Laser therapy that allows for better drainage of fluids inside the eye
• Eye surgery to create a new drainage canal

If not treated, glaucoma can and does lead to total blindness. Glaucoma is easily detected with a medical eye examination. Ophthalmologists (medical eye doctors) can measure the pressure inside the eye with a quick and painless, office test. Another test, called a visual field test, can determine the damage done to a person's side vision. With regular office visits your doctor can monitor your glaucoma progression.

While the causes for glaucoma are not completely known, we do know that risk factors for its development include family history, race and older age. Routine eye examinations can detect glaucoma at an early stage and prevent serious loss of vision.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends eye exams at every two years after age 40 and every year after age sixty. African-Americans, Hispanics and other high-risk groups such as people with a parent, sister or brother that have glaucoma should have eye examinations every year beginning at age 40.

A non-profit group called EyeCare America runs a nationwide Glaucoma EyeCare Program and offers free eye exams for uninsured people who are increased risk for the eye disease. Those interested can call 1-800-391-EYES (3937) to get free educational materials on glaucoma or to find out if they are eligible for a free glaucoma eye exam. More information on this organization can be found at

Remember...Glaucoma doesn't have to interfere with leading a happy, sighted and fulfilling life. Detecting the disease early can save your sight!

Robert L. Stamper, M.D.
Professor and Director of the Glaucoma Service
University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine
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