Many of us breathed a sigh of relief when the year 2020 with its many challenges came to an end. But the New Year brings a critical reminder: January is National Glaucoma Awareness Month. It’s an important time to educate yourself, family and loved ones about this disease that is often called the “silent thief of sight.”

Let’s explore the top five questions patients ask us about glaucoma:

  1. What is glaucoma?

Glaucoma, the silent thief of sight, is actually a group of eye diseases that gradually cause damage to the eyes and steal your eyesight with no warning or symptoms ― until it’s too late. Though the disease most commonly strikes in middle-age or later, it can also affect younger people of any age.

Glaucoma damages the optic nerve, which serves as the connector between your eyes and your brain. Once this nerve is damaged and vision is lost, it cannot be reversed. Damage to the optic nerve is caused by too much pressure of the fluid inside the eye ― because either too much fluid is produced or it isn’t draining out of the eye properly.

Once the optic nerve is damaged, vision loss can’t be regained. That’s why early detection of glaucoma is incredibly important. Your optometrist tests you for glaucoma and looks for signs of the disease each year at your annual comprehensive eye exam.

While there is no cure for glaucoma, when detected early, the disease can be managed. Further vision loss can be slowed or prevented by proper treatment, medication or surgery. As with so many conditions, early detection holds the key to minimizing its impact on your daily life.

  1. Who is most likely to develop glaucoma?

While the disease can strike anyone at any age, a typical patient may fall into one or more of the following risk factor categories:

  • African-American, Hispanic or Asian ethnicity
  • Age 60 or above
  • Elevated eye pressure (your optometrist checks this during your eye exam)
  • A family history of the disease
  • Ongoing steroid use – including asthma inhalers
  • Smoking
  • Past eye injury or injuries
  • Diabetes, high blood pressure, migraines or other conditions that impact blood vessels
  1. What are glaucoma’s warning signs?

There are few (if any) noticeable symptoms in the early stages of glaucoma, which is why the disease can steal a significant amount of your vision before you notice it. Unfortunately, a loss of vision may be the first symptom you notice. Your best line of defense against this vision thief is to have a comprehensive eye exam each year.

  1. Can glaucoma be prevented?

There are best practices you can adopt throughout your life to help prevent this disease. These include:

  • Don’t smoke
  • Carefully control any medical conditions, such as diabetes.
  • Keep blood pressure within normal range through diet, exercise and medication.
  • Wear safety glasses when working around the home, garage or yard.
  • See your optometrist each year for a dilated, comprehensive eye exam including an eye pressure check.
  1. What is the treatment for glaucoma?

The goal for treating glaucoma is to lower the fluid pressure inside of your eyes to prevent damage to the optic nerve. That goal can be achieved in several ways that include surgery, laser procedures, oral medication, and prescription eye drops.

When caught early, glaucoma is often treated with prescription eye drops. This medication helps to lower the pressure inside of the eye, which can help to slow or even prevent the optic nerve damage that causes vision loss. It’s critical to follow directions and use the eye drops according to your doctor’s instructions in order to slow the progression of the disease.

There are also surgical treatments, which include draining the excess fluid from inside of the eye to lower the high eye pressure. Laser procedures are another way to treat this disease. While these procedures can help significantly, they sometimes need repeating, and you may also still need to use eye drops to manage the disease.

The damage caused by glaucoma cannot be reversed, which is why it’s so important to see your optometrist yearly for a comprehensive eye exam to check your eye pressure. When caught early, treatments are often effective in limiting vision loss from this silent thief of sight.