Dubbed the “sneak thief of sight,” glaucoma is a disease you won’t see coming. It’s often caused by elevated pressure in the eye, which can damage the optic nerve and result in peripheral or complete vision loss. According to the World Health Organization, glaucoma is the second leading cause of irreversible blindness in the world, and because there are no noticeable symptoms, regular eye exams are the only way to diagnose it.
“You can’t feel it,” said Anna Anderson, OD, an optometrist at Kaiser Permanente in Clackamas, Oregon. “You can’t feel if you have elevated eye pressure or if it’s causing damage to your optic nerve. And the progression of vision loss is so slow, you wouldn’t be able to notice it.”
Studies show that people can lose up to 40 percent of their vision before seeing a change. According to the National Eye Institute, over three million people in the United States have glaucoma, with a projected increase of 58% by 2030.
Dr. Anderson said the best way to diagnose and manage glaucoma is to maintain regularly scheduled eye exams. “It’s a slow-progressing condition so following up with your doctor is the most important thing,” she said. “I’ve seen patients who had early signs with mildly elevated eye pressure or an abnormal optic nerve appearance who are not seen again for an exam for 5 or 6 years — that’s enough time for some significant damage to occur.”
There is no cure for glaucoma, so early detection and awareness are key. People of African, Asian, and Hispanic decent are more susceptible to the disease, as are people over the age of 60, people with a family history of glaucoma, and people with diabetes or those taking steroidal medications.
If caught in time, doctors can prescribe eye drops that lessen eye pressure and reduce tension on the optic nerve, which can slow or even stop vision loss. Laser treatments and surgical options are also available for more advanced cases, but Dr. Anderson noted that those are often a last resort.
“There’s excellent therapy for glaucoma, but there’s nothing you can do to prevent it,” said Dr. Anderson. “So again, regular eye exams are the most important way to detect changes and diagnose the disease.”