Experts estimate that in the United States, more than 2 million people live with glaucoma. This particular group of eye diseases, is the leading cause of blindness worldwide. In fact, the issue is so prevalent that the World Health Organization lists glaucoma as a priority.
“Glaucoma affects the optic nerve, which is the seeing nerve of the eye. It’s the cable that connects the eye to the brain,” says Anupama Anchala, M.D., ophthalmologist at Weiss. She adds that it is different from cataracts, which results in a clouding of the eye and blurred vision.
Glaucoma develops when fluid pressure in the eye builds up due to slow drainage. That puts pressure on the nerve, resulting in tunnel vision. However, Dr. Anchala says that if she catches the disease early enough, she can prevent or delay her patients’ vision loss. “If the pressure in your eye is high, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have glaucoma, but you are at risk, so we’ll keep an eye on it,” she adds.
Those most at risk include African Americans over age 40, general population over age 60, people with a family history of glaucoma, Hispanics, people with nearsightedness, diabetics, people with high blood pressure and people who use steroids.
“People say you’ll know when you have it, but that’s not true. Sometimes there are no symptoms,” Dr. Anchala says. Other myths she debunked: high blood pressure automatically equates to high eye pressure; stress can cause glaucoma; and people can regain lost vision.
Unfortunately, there is no remedy for the disease, which is why so many researchers devote their time to finding a cure. They are studying other seemingly unrelated factors, such as vascular problems, that may lead to glaucoma. Scientists are also looking into better ways to administer medications and conduct surgery, the results of which differ greatly from patient to patient. “Sometimes I’ll do a surgery that will help a patient for a few years, and sometimes it helps them for the rest of their life,” Dr. Anchala says.
Besides surgery—which may involve filters and drainage implants—treatments include drops and medication. The medication is typically very safe with minimal side effects. Laser treatment is also an option, opening drains in the eye and allowing more fluid out, which decreases pressure.
“That’s why it’s so important to see your eye doctor,” Dr. Anchala says. “We can’t get back what’s been lost, but we can slow it down.”