Ask the Expert: What is Glaucoma?

November 17, 2017 by Elizabeth

  • Peter A. Netland, MD, PhD

    What is glaucoma?

  • Glaucoma is typically a combination of increased eye pressure, optic nerve damage and vision loss. The vision loss is most frequently in the peripheral visual field early in the disease, but can progress to loss of the central visual field and visual acuity, or the sharpness of vision. Glaucoma is common, and is the second-leading cause of blindness in the U.S. and in the world. Usually, adults are affected, but less common forms can affect infants and young patients.

The most common symptom is vision loss, but many patients with glaucoma are identified by routine eye exams before vision loss occurs. Most patients do not have other symptoms such as pain, redness or other problems, although some less common types of glaucoma can cause these symptoms. In rare instances, the eye pressure can become very elevated, which can lead to headache, nausea and vomiting.

The treatments for glaucoma are effective, including medical therapy (eye drops), laser treatments and surgical treatments. The risk of vision loss is low once the disease is identified. The best way to reduce risk is to have an eye examination by an ophthalmologist. Testing accurately detects damage to the optic nerve and visual field.

Probably the strongest risk factor is age, so it is a good idea to have an eye checkup after age 50 or so. African-Americans and Hispanics are at high risk, although anyone can get glaucoma. If you have a family history of glaucoma, this is a strong risk factor. If you have glaucoma, it is a good idea to advise children to check their eyes. Many patients, however, have no risk factors, so it is always a good idea to have an eye exam if you have not been checked in a while.

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