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Understanding glaucoma

Know the signs to prevent vision loss

January is National Glaucoma Awareness Month, the perfect time to gain a better understanding of the eye disease that affects more than 3 million people in the United States. 

Glaucoma describes a group of eye diseases that damage the optic nerve, resulting in vision loss. There are two main types of glaucoma, both of which are marked by an increase in eye pressure. 

Primary open-angle glaucoma occurs as a gradual process that typically has no immediately noticeable symptoms. People with this disease usually feel fine in the early stages. As the disease progresses, a patient may notice he or she is tripping more often, or that people may suddenly show up out of their peripheral vision without their seeing them sooner. By the time patients are aware that they are experiencing vision loss, the disease has advanced significantly.

This type of glaucoma most often affects those of Hispanic or African-American descent, people with previous eye injuries, those over the age of 60 and anyone with a family history of the disease. People with diabetes or cardiovascular disease may also have an increased risk for this type of glaucoma.

The other common type is angle-closure glaucoma, also known as acute glaucoma. This disease is marked by the rapid onset of blurry vision and is often accompanied by severe pain and even nausea. If you have these symptoms, you should seek medical treatment immediately. If left untreated, the eye may completely lose sight.

Although there is no cure for glaucoma, there are several treatment options including medication, laser therapy or surgery. Treatment choice may vary based on a patient’s medical history, but specialized eye drops that lower eye pressure are the most common initial choice. 

Laser treatment has grown in popularity in recent years and may be performed in the clinic in as little as 10 minutes. This type of therapy is effective in about 85 percent of patients and can control pressure in the eye for up to three years. A different type of laser treatment can be performed as an outpatient operation. 

Finally, surgical intervention may be necessary when other less invasive procedures have failed.

Dr. Joshua W. Evans is an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the University of Kentucky.

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