Glaucoma is a disease of the eyes that usually occurs later in life and can cause progressive, irreversible loss of vision and, if untreated, eventual blindness. The condition is the second-leading cause of blindness in the United States.
Glaucoma is associated with increased fluid pressure inside the eye. This fluid, called the aqueous humor, normally drains from the inside of the eyes through small canals that can sometimes become blocked. Such blockage causes the fluid to back up, leading to increased intraocular pressure. If the pressure becomes high enough, it can damage the optic nerves, which transmit vision signals from the eyes to the brain.
No one knows why the blockage occurs in most cases, but genetic factors likely play a role, since glaucoma often runs in families. For example, African Americans are at higher risk for glaucoma than Caucasians. Other less common causes include abnormal blood vessels in the eye, inflammatory conditions and certain types of eye injury.
People can have glaucoma for years without noticing any symptoms. The first indication is often a loss of peripheral vision, which may not be noticed until the disease has progressed significantly. In advanced cases, glaucoma may cause eye pain, blurred vision, tunnel vision or headache.
Glaucoma can be treated with medications that improve drainage or reduce the amount of fluid that forms inside the eye. Laser surgery or eye surgery may also be used to correct the drainage system.
At present, it is not known how to prevent or cure glaucoma. Early detection and treatment of glaucoma, however, can keep most people with the condition from going blind. That’s why it’s important to have regular eye exams every one or two years—especially for people over age 40, or those with a family history of glaucoma or diabetes. During an eye exam, your eye doctor will check your peripheral vision, your optic nerves and the pressure inside your eyes to help maximize your chance for long-term eye health.