Glaucoma Awareness Month: Beware the ‘Sneak Thief of Sight’

By: Ian Conner,M.D., Ph.D.

January is Glaucoma Awareness Month, a good time to talk about the disease that has long been called the “sneak thief of sight.”

Glaucoma is the leading cause of preventable blindness in the U.S., and the disease affects at least 3 million adults in this country and 60 million people worldwide. Unfortunately, many people affected by glaucoma aren’t even aware they have it because it does not typically cause loss of vision or other symptoms until fairly late in the disease process. Let’s look at some common questions about glaucoma:�
What is glaucoma?

Glaucoma is a group of diseases which all have the common finding of progressive optic nerve damage. The optic nerve is the bundle of fibers which carries information about the visual world back to the brain, enabling you to see. If the optic nerve is damaged, these signals are interrupted and vision is lost. Most types of glaucoma are progressive over time, meaning that they continue to get worse if left undiagnosed or untreated. Vision that is lost to glaucoma cannot be restored, emphasizing the importance of early diagnosis and treatment.
Who is at risk?

Anyone can develop glaucoma, but certain groups are at higher risk than others. In particular, people of African, Asian and Hispanic descent have higher rates of glaucoma, as do all individuals over 60 years old and first-degree relatives of others who have already been diagnosed with glaucoma. In addition, individuals with high degrees of myopia (near-sightedness), people who require chronic steroid use for treatment of inflammatory disease, and people who have had a prior eye injury are also at higher risk.
How is it diagnosed?

Glaucoma is usually without symptoms for the patient until late in the disease. Therefore, the only way to be diagnosed with glaucoma for most patients is to have a routine comprehensive eye exam performed by a licensed optometrist or ophthalmologist. This eye care professional will complete an examination including measurement of your vision, intraocular pressure, and a dilated view of your optic nerve. If the exam is suspicious for glaucoma, the doctor may also recommend further testing, including a test of visual function or an automated measurement of the optic nerve.
How is it treated?

Generally speaking, glaucoma is treated by lowering the pressure inside the eye. As a first-line treatment, this is usually accomplished by using a daily eye drop or by having a laser treatment in the office. More advanced cases may require multiple different eye drops or even incisional surgery in the operating room to lower the eye pressure. Lowering the intraocular pressure is the only proven way to arrest the progress of chronic glaucoma. �
Glaucoma must be diagnosed and treated as early in the process as possible to prevent irreversible vision loss. Please encourage your family and friends to have routine comprehensive eye exams, especially if they fall into a high-risk category as described above.
To schedule a glaucoma screening exam, or to see if you qualify for one of the research studies being conducted, contact the UPMC Eye Center at 412-647-2200 or 1-800-446-3797.