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Glaucoma: Know the Risks and Protect Your Vision

Glaucoma: Know the Risks and Protect Your Vision | UPMC Ireland

Glaucoma is an eye disease that damages the optic nerve and can lead to progressive or abrupt vision loss.

According to the Irish College of Ophthalmologists (IOC), glaucoma is the leading cause of blindness in Ireland, with projections indicating a 33% increase in its incidence over the next decade.

Fluid buildup in the eye increases pressure and leads to gradual or sudden nerve damage. This depends on the type of disease and sometimes results from irregularities in the eye’s drainage system. When left untreated, glaucoma can lead to permanent vision loss.

Although there’s no cure for glaucoma, early treatment can slow vision loss and protect against further damage. It’s important to see a consultant right away if you’re experiencing eye pain, poor vision, or severe headaches.

It’s also important to schedule routine, thorough eye exams. Early signs of the most common type of glaucoma are often hard to spot. Here, we’ll break down the causes, risk factors, and treatment options for glaucoma to help you make informed decisions and protect your vision.

Types and Causes of Glaucoma

Glaucoma is often associated with a buildup of fluid that puts pressure on the eye (or eyes) and damages its optic nerve. However, experts are still not sure what causes many types of glaucoma. As the damaged optic nerve worsens, a person with glaucoma starts to develop blind spots and blurry vision. Eventually, if left untreated, this can lead to permanent vision loss.

The types of glaucoma are:

  • Primary open-angle glaucoma: The most common type of glaucoma usually involves slow, painless damage to the optic nerve. Some believe this results from problems in the eye’s drainage system that arise over time. Those with this type of glaucoma can lose a significant portion of their eyesight before noticing vision problems. When left untreated, it often takes open-angle glaucoma several years to progress to complete blindness.
  • Angle-closure glaucoma: Sometimes called closed-angle glaucoma, this type of the disease is less common. However, it is also a medical emergency that can cause vision loss within a day. The drainage angle is the location where the iris and sclera (two parts of your eye) meet and inner-eye fluid drains. People with a narrow drainage angle may experience this type of glaucoma. The eye’s drainage angle closes or becomes blocked, causing fluid buildup in the eye. Angle-closure glaucoma can progress gradually or appear suddenly.
  • Secondary glaucoma: A result of an injury or another eye disease, this can result from medical conditions, medications, physical injuries, or eye abnormalities.
  • Normal-tension or low-tension glaucoma: This is when a person’s eye pressure is in the “normal” range, but the optic nerve becomes damaged for unknown reasons. People with this type of glaucoma may have a sensitive optic nerve or a lower blood supply to the optic nerve due to other issues.

Glaucoma Risk Factors

Anyone can develop glaucoma at any age, but certain people are at a higher risk. Risk factors identified by the IOC include: 

  • Age: Advanced age, particularly over 65, increases the risk of developing glaucoma.
  • Race: Individuals of African, Hispanic, or Asian descent are at a higher risk of developing glaucoma compared to those of Caucasian descent.
  • Family history: Having a family member with glaucoma increases one's risk of developing the condition themselves.
  • Short sight: People with a high degree of short sight are more prone to chronic glaucoma.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms?

The most common type of glaucoma, primary open-angle glaucoma, tends to show very few noticeable symptoms in its early stages.

It usually progresses slowly and painlessly, and peripheral vision loss is often the first to go. You may notice your peripheral vision getting worse if you’re turning your head more often to look off to the side.

As the disease progresses, potential symptoms include:

  • Blind spots.
  • Blurred vision.
  • Eye pain, pressure, and/or redness.
  • Halos or coloured rings around lights.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Severe headache.
  • Tunnel vision.
  • Vision problems.

For those with angle-closure glaucoma, the symptoms are more dramatic and can include blurred vision, halos or coloured rings around lights, and pain and/ or redness in the eye.

Should I Get Screened for Glaucoma?

Regular eye exams are the only way to catch glaucoma early and stop significant vision loss.

Early detection is key, so anyone with high-risk factors for glaucoma should get tested every one to three years.

The Irish College of Ophthalmologists recommend that all adults have a baseline eye screening by age 40 to spot early signs. For people age 60 and older, the ICO recommends a comprehensive eye exam every 1 to 2 years, or as directed by your GP, optician, or ophthalmologist.  

A complete eye exam includes common tests to detect glaucoma, such as:

  • Corneal thickness measurements.
  • Dilated eye exam.
  • Eye angle exam.
  • Eye pressure check.
  • Optic nerve imaging and retina evaluation.
  • Visual field tests.

What Can I Do to Prevent Glaucoma?

The best way to prevent glaucoma is to schedule routine comprehensive eye exams and talk to an ophthalmologist or optician about your risk factors.

Though preventing glaucoma isn’t always possible, early treatment can avoid significant vision loss.

Generally, eating a nutritious diet rich in vitamins such as vitamin A and getting regular moderate exercise may keep your eyes healthy for longer. Protecting your eyes from injury during sports, work, and home improvement projects can protect you from secondary glaucoma, too. Wear protective eyewear whenever necessary. Remember: The best prevention is early detection.

If you are experiencing eye problems, make an appointment to see your GP or your optician, and ask for a referral for one of our ophthalmologists at a UPMC location near you. Locations include UPMC Whitfield HospitalUPMC Kildare Hospital, and UPMC Aut Even Hospital.

Learn more about Ophthalmology at UPMC Ireland.