What is glaucoma?
Glaucoma is a group of diseases that damage your optic nerve, a nerve that connects your eye to your brain, and leads to progressive, irreversible vision loss if not treated early. Glaucoma is the second leading cause of blindness.
What causes glaucoma?
There are a number of reasons for glaucoma but most often it is caused by a build-up of pressure in your eye. This is due to fluid in your eyeball, known as aqueous humour, being unable to drain from your eye properly. The fluid builds up, causes an increase in pressure, and damages your optic nerve.
We don’t always know why this happens but some things increase your risk, including your:
- Age – glaucoma becomes more likely as you get older. It occurs most often in both men and women over the age of forty.
- Ethnicity – you are at higher risk if you are of African, Caribbean or Asian origin.
- Family history – you have a higher risk if you have a parent or sibling with the condition.
What are the symptoms of glaucoma?
Typically, glaucoma doesn't have any initial symptoms. Many people don't realise they have it. It is often picked up during a routine eye test. Therefore, regular and complete eye exams are key to the early detection of glaucoma, and protecting your vision.
Primary open angle glaucoma develops slowly over many years. The first symptom is generally a loss of your peripheral vision (the edge of your vision), typically in both eyes, although it may be worse in one eye. Without treatment, it can eventually lead to blindness.
Primary angle closure glaucoma, a less common type of glaucoma, occurs due to a blockage and may cause sudden and severe symptoms including: intense eye pain, red eye, headache, blurred vision, tender eyes, and seeing rings around lights. If you experience these symptoms you need to go to your nearest eye casualty unit or accident and emergency (A&E) department immediately.
How is glaucoma diagnosed?
It’s important to have regular and complete eye exams to test for glaucoma. It is generally advised that you should book an eye examination every two years. As you age, and if you’re at higher risk of glaucoma, you should have more frequent visits to your optician.
Diagnosing glaucoma is not always easy. Glaucoma tests commonly include;
- Tonometry – to examine your inner eye pressure.
- Perimetry – complete field of vision test.
- Ophthalmoscopy – to look at the shape and colour of your optic nerve.
If glaucoma is detected during an eye test, you will be referred to an ophthalmologist (eye doctor) for further tests to determine how far the condition has developed, the amount of damage to your eyes, and what may have caused your glaucoma. Your ophthalmologist will then advise on the best course of treatment for your individual needs.
Treatment options if you have glaucoma
Unfortunately, treatment cannot reverse any loss of vision but it can help prevent your vision getting any worse.
There are several treatments for glaucoma. The treatment type will largely be based on the type of glaucoma you have. Options include eye drops, laser treatment and surgery. Eye drops are the main treatment for glaucoma. There are a number of different types of eye drops and you may need to try a few before finding one that works well for you. They all reduce the pressure in your eyes.
If eye drops aren’t working to improve your symptoms, then your doctor may recommend laser treatment. There are different types but they all involves using a high-energy beam of light in your eye with the aim of stopping the fluid building up inside it. Surgery is sometimes recommended as an alternative to laser treatment. The most common glaucoma surgery is called trabeculectomy and involves removing part of your eye drainage tubes to allow fluid to drain more easily.
Your ophthalmology specialist will discuss the best course of treatment with you.