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Glaucoma Photo for Box


What is Glaucoma?

Glacoma eye Glaucoma (pronounced "glawkoma") is an eye disease that causes progressive damage to the optic nerve, the part of the eye responsible for carrying visual information from the retina to the brain. Because it affects peripheral (side) vision before central vision, glaucoma is usually not noticed until very late in its course.

Glaucoma affects 4+ million Americans of all ages and races. At least half of these people are unaware that they have the disease. If left undetected and/or untreated, glaucoma can cause permanent loss of vision. Glaucoma is a leading cause of blindness mainly because it usually does not present symptoms until permanent severe damage has occurred.

Studies have shown that glaucoma can increase the risk of falls and car accidents due to the “tunneling” of vision. Vision destroyed by glaucoma cannot be restored, however, appropriate treatment can generally halt progression of the disease. Therefore, detection via periodic comprehensive examinations is essential, especially after age 35. Glaucoma usually runs in families, involves both eyes, and occurs after middle age. It affects about five to seven percent of all Americans beyond age 65, and has an even higher rate of incidence in the black population. In rare instances, glaucoma may be present at birth, requiring prompt surgical attention.

Why Does Glaucoma Happen?

Glaucoma is caused by a variety of factors, including changes in the optic nerve that make it more susceptible to damage, and often (but not always) an increase in pressure inside the eye.

Glacoma normal eye To understand the anatomy involved, the front part of your eye is filled with a clear fluid ("aqueous humor") that supplies essential nutrients to tissues inside the eye and helps to maintain normal pressure for its shape. This fluid is continually produced inside your eye by a structure called the "ciliary body," and later leaves via tiny drainage canals in a fine meshwork located in the "angle" between the cornea and the iris. (This fluid system should not be confused with tears, which are produced outside the eye and are not related to glaucoma.)

If this fluid system is working correctly, the proper amount is continually pumped into the eye and drained out. But, if the fluid is unable to flow away freely, pressure can rise inside the eye. This elevated pressure may be minimal, but if it persists over time, in some people it reduces the blood supply to the optic nerve, thus damaging how visual information is carried from the retina to the brain. This damage is characterized by a change in the size and shape of the optic cup, a depression in the optic nerve (see photos). At first, glaucoma only affects side vision, gradually constricting the field of view. But, if not treated, it can destroy all vision, resulting in blindness.

Types of Glaucoma

Primary Open-Angle Glaucoma

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Primary Open-Angle Glaucoma is the most common form of the disease, accounting for the vast majority of cases. It normally occurs in both eyes and progresses so slowly that it often goes unnoticed for months or years—thus earning the title "Sneak Thief of Sight." With open-angle glaucoma, the filtration (drainage) angle of the eye between the cornea and iris (colored part) remains wide open, but some blockage occurs in the "trabecular meshwork" (the tiny sieve-like drainage canals through which eye fluid passes into the bloodstream). This backup creates increased intraocular (inner eye) pressure and gradual deterioration of the optic nerve. Primary open-angle glaucoma is a lifelong condition that, at present, can only be controlled, not cured.

Acute Angle-Closure Glaucoma

Acute Angle-Closure is a much rarer form of glaucoma. In most of these patients, the filtration angle of the eye is unusually narrow. Thus, if something triggers the pupil to dilate too far in an affected eye, the iris balloons forward and adheres to the cornea—completely blocking the drainage of fluid at the outflow angle. This causes a rapid and extreme rise in pressure, which can lead to irreversible loss of vision without prompt medical and laser treatment by an ophthalmologist.

In contrast to open-angle glaucoma, acute angle-closure glaucoma has symptoms. It strikes suddenly (usually in one eye) and can cause severe eye pain or headaches above or around the eye, blurry vision, redness, and sometimes nausea and vomiting. An attack of acute angle-closure glaucoma is a medical emergency, and you should not wait to see whether or not it gets better on its own. The sooner this condition is diagnosed and treated, the greater the chance of reversing the episode.

Individuals at risk for acute angle-closure glaucoma can only be identified by examination. Antihistamines and antidepressants should be used with extreme caution in people who are susceptible to acute angle-closure glaucoma.

Key Differences Between:

Primary Open-Angle Glaucoma

  1. Most common form
  2. Progresses slowly
  3. Drainage angle between iris and cornea is open
  4. Rise in pressure is caused by resistance to outflow through trabecular meshwork
  5. Symptoms are NONE until very late in the disease
  6. Vision loss is irreversible
  7. Requires on-going medical control
  8. Lifelong condition

Open angle glacoma

Acute Angle-Closure Glaucoma

  1. Less common form
  2. Occurs suddenly
  3. Drainage angle between iris and cornea closes off
  4. Rise in pressure is caused by iris completely closing off drainage angle
  5. Symptoms are sudden severe pain, blurry vision and red eye (Nausea and vomiting are also possible)
  6. Vision loss is irreversible, unless treated early
  7. Requires immediate medical attention
  8. Curable, if treated within time

Closed angle glacoma

Low-Tension Glaucoma

In this form of glaucoma, the optic nerve is so sensitive that even relatively normal intraocular pressures can damage the optic nerve, causing vision loss. Studies have proven that keeping the eye pressure in these people even lower than normal helps to reduce vision loss. However, some patients may continue to lose vision despite extremely low pressures.

Congenital Glaucoma

This rare form of glaucoma occurs in infants and is secondary to improper development of the eye's drainage canals. Enlarged eyes, tearing and unusual sensitivity to light are common symptoms of congenital glaucoma and indicate the urgent need for examination.

Secondary Glaucoma

This type of glaucoma is caused by some other condition or factor, such as inflammation of the eye, pigment dispersion, injuries, tumors, eye surgery, severe diabetes, or very advanced cataracts.

Ocular Hypertension

With this fairly common condition, patients have modestly elevated eye pressure but no sign of optic nerve damage. Since these people are at risk for developing true glaucoma in the future, their optic nerves, visual fields and pressures should be closely monitored.

The following information focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of primary open-angle glaucoma since it is the most prevalent form of the disease, and the type most people are familiar with when they use the word "glaucoma."

Risk Factors Associated with Glaucoma

Because symptoms of open-angle glaucoma are often not noticeable until damage has already occurred, the best defense is an eye examination. It is also important to be aware of the following risk factors:

glacoma normal vs damaged vision

Glaucoma Detection, Diagnosis and Monitoring

The following factors are usually evaluated in making a glaucoma diagnosis:

The following instruments and tests may be used to examine the above factors:

Tonometry:  Measures inner eye pressure by determining how much pressure is necessary to cause a slight indentation on the outer part of the eye. Depending upon the type of tonometry equipment used, a very small amount of pressure is applied by an instrument that painlessly touches the eyeball or by a warm puff of air that is directed toward the eyeball. Normal pressure usually ranges from 12-21 mmHG (millimeters of mercury). However, readings can vary by the hour or day. Some people may have borderline or mildly elevated pressures without any evidence of damage. This does not require immediate treatment, but does call for regular monitoring of pressures, visual fields, and optic nerve status.

Ophthalmoscopy:  An instrument called an ophthalmoscope is used to look through the pupil and light up the back of the eye to check the health of the retina and optic nerve. With this device, signs of glaucoma (like abnormal optic cup size and loss of pink coloring) can be detected.

Tonometry and ophthalmoscopy are normal parts of a routine comprehensive eye examination. Since glaucoma usually does not exhibit symptoms, periodic eye exams are important for anyone past age 35. If high pressures are found or the optic nerve looks unusual, one or more of the following tests may be performed:

Visual Field Testing:  During this test, the patient sits and stares straight ahead into a white, bowl-shaped area and presses a button whenever a flash of light is noticed. The device then produces a computerized “map” that shows if there has been any loss of side vision (an early sign of glaucoma). Visual field tests are ordered upon diagnosis and are generally repeated every four months to two years, depending on the severity and level of control of the glaucoma.

Gonioscopy:  A special hand-held contact lens with a mirror inside is used to examine the angle where the iris meets the cornea. This helps determine if the angle is wide and open (open-angle glaucoma), blocked and closed (angle-closure glaucoma), or clogged with pigment, debris or abnormal blood vessels (secondary glaucoma) and, therefore, what type of treatment is required. Gonioscopy is periodically performed in combination with pressure tests in patients with open-angle glaucoma to assess whether or not the angle is still open.

Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT):  Eye Care Specialists joins such prestigious eye institutions and research centers as the Harvard Medical School and Johns Hopkins in offering the latest advancement in glaucoma detection—Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT). With OCT laser scanning technology, we can create a “virtual reality” tissue biopsy of the retina and optic nerve to detect and track signs of glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, macular degeneration and other sight-threatening diseases before any damage occurs.

Patients like the OCT because it is fast and painless. You simply rest your chin and focus on a dot while a safe, invisible laser light scans the inside of your eye. The OCT then creates detailed printouts (similar to CT scans) that provide unparalleled accuracy in visualizing and measuring the severity and extent of any changes to the optic nerve and retina.

As you return for follow-up exams, any telltale changes can be promptly detected and treated with the necessary drops, laser therapy or surgery—thus helping to prevent any future loss of vision.

The OCT is an advancement in glaucoma care because changes in your optic nerve can be accurately detected much sooner and easier than by traditional testing or visual inspection. For example, an air puff test is commonly used to measure intraocular pressure to diagnose glaucoma. Studies now show, however, that many glaucoma sufferers don't have elevated pressures. As a result, if you rely only on an air puff test, you may miss catching the disease in its early stages.

Conversely, elevated eye pressure doesn't always require treatment. For some patients, there may be no evidence of optic nerve damage or field loss and pressures are only mildly elevated. In these cases, repeat OCTs and visual fields are typically recommended to track the "glaucoma suspect" and thus allow them to wait until it is truly necessary before having to start any medication treatment.

influenced by external stimuli, such as patient attention span, comfort, ability to follow directions, etc. Also, OCT technology uses an exact scanned image to detect glaucoma prior to experiencing any vision loss. This differs from visual field tests which produce a plotted “map” representing a person's range of sight based on what areas have already been lost. (About 50 percent of nerve fiber must be lost before the damage appears on a visual field printout.)

Because of these many capabilities, the information gained from a single OCT scan is often more useful than any other diagnostic tool.

In addition to undergoing the above tests, it is important that you provide your doctor with an accurate medical history, including any vision concerns or symptoms. Since glaucoma may be hereditary, note any family members with the disease. You should also list all medications you use, as certain allergy and cold remedies and antidepressants can cause vision-threatening reactions in people with narrow angles.

Methods of Controlling Glaucoma

At present, open-angle glaucoma can NOT be prevented or cured. Fortunately, however, of the many causes, one factor can be controlled—inner eye pressure. With the most common type of glaucoma, fluid in the eye is able to reach the internal drainage channels, but has a difficult time getting through the tiny pores of the trabecular meshwork. The following methods of treatment are used to control the resulting increased pressure.

Medical Treatment

Glaucoma is most commonly treated with one or more of the following prescription medications that either reduce fluid production in the eye or increase outflow through the drainage meshwork. In some cases, glaucoma can be well controlled with as little as one drop per day.

Laser Treatment

Dr. Cohen glacoma laser treatment

Glaucoma is usually well controlled with medications. In cases when drops alone cannot control pressure, or side effects are intolerable, or multiple types of drops are required, laser treatment may be an alternative. Occasionally, laser procedures are used as the first method of treatment. Our surgeons utilize SLT (which increases fluid drainage) and ECP (which decreases fluid production). Both take less than 10 minutes at our surgery center and are covered by Medicare and most insurances.

SLT and ECP have very good success rates in controlling glaucoma and reducing the need for drops or surgery. They also have lower complication rates than other glaucoma surgeries and can sometimes be repeated, as needed. If laser treatment achieves steady normal pressures, it can reduce two huge burdens—cost and compliance. This is especially important for people who already have other conditions requiring daily medication(s) that they have to worry about buying and taking. Candidacy depends on your specific condition and must be discussed with your eye care specialist.

Surgical Treatment

For the minority of glaucoma patients who cannot be controlled with drops, pills or laser treatment, surgery is required to create a new opening for fluid to leave the eye. This is performed at our outpatient eye surgery center, typically under local anesthesia. As with any surgery, this procedure runs the risk of complications. The advent of newer techniques and medicines that retard scar formation, however, have significantly increased the success rate of filtering surgery.

Our practice also offers an advancement in glaucoma treatment that involves surgical implantation of a tube-like device designed to drain fluid and reduce eye pressure.

Simple Rules to Follow in Treating Glaucoma

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  1. Take medications as directed. Don't use more or less than prescribed.
  2. Schedule your medications around daily routines, such as sleep and mealtimes to help remember to use them.
  3. If you forget to use your eyedrops, administer a drop as soon as you remember. Then go back to your regular schedule.
  4. Keep all eye doctor appointments and take your drops and/or pills as normal on those days. If you don't, your pressures may be affected and your doctor won't be able to tell how you are doing.

What The Future Holds

Exciting new innovations are on the horizon for glaucoma diagnosis and treatment. Advancements are being made in developing eye drops with fewer side effects that can be used fewer times per day. Doctors are also working on new procedures to replace the filtering surgery operation, and scientists are looking at ways to genetically identify people apt to develop glaucoma. The most exciting frontier is the development of drugs to strengthen the optic nerve and make it more resistant to damage.

Glaucoma-related blindness creates physical, emotional and financial burdens for patients, families and society. This loss is even more devastating if it was preventable. Since symptoms usually do not appear until permanent damage has already occurred, periodic glaucoma examinations are crucial. Early detection and treatment are still the best means to control glaucoma and to help ensure that everyone has the opportunity to see life to the fullest.

For more information or a comprehensive examination . . .

Since 1985, Eye Care Specialists has provided comprehensive medical, surgical and laser care for virtually every eye condition to more than 130,000 people in southeastern Wisconsin. If you would like detailed booklets/handouts on the information contained in this section or other eye-related topics, please contact our Communications & Education Department at 414-321-7035. To schedule a comprehensive eye evaluation, call one of our three convenient Milwaukee-area locations directly.