What is Glaucoma?

Glaucoma is a leading cause of blindness. At least 3 million Americans suffer from glaucoma. Glaucoma is a disease of the optic nerve. The optic nerve is the cable that carries the information about the images we see from the eye to the brain. Many glaucoma cases are associated with elevation of eye pressure. Glaucoma optic nerve damage without high eye pressure is referred to as “low tension glaucoma” or “normal pressure glaucoma.” Glaucoma treatment, whether it is medication, laser, or surgery, aims to reduce eye pressure in order to protect the optic nerve and prevent vision loss.

Healthy Eye vs Eye with Glaucoma

Visual loss from glaucoma results from damage to the optic nerve which leads to progressive loss of the field of vision. Usually people do not notice these blind areas until much of the optic nerve damage has already occurred. If the entire nerve is destroyed, blindness results. Early detection and treatment are the keys to preventing optic nerve damage and blindness from glaucoma.

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Who is at risk for Glaucoma?

High eye pressure alone does not mean that you have glaucoma. A qualified ophthalmologist takes many kinds of information into account to determine your risk for developing the disease.

Several important risk factors include but are not limited to:

  • Age
  • African ancestry
  • A family history of glaucoma
  • Past injuries to the eyes

Your doctor will weigh all of these factors before deciding whether you need treatment for glaucoma or whether you should be monitored closely as a glaucoma suspect. If you are labeled as glaucoma suspect, it means that your risk of developing glaucoma is higher than normal and that you require more extensive monitoring.

Types of Glaucoma

Primary Open Angle Glaucoma

The vast majority of glaucoma patients have primary open angle glaucoma (POAG). The rise in eye pressure associated with open angle glaucoma has to do with a cell problem at the drain (trabecular meshwork) that increases resistance in the drain.

Closed Angle Glaucoma

This is a process in which the drain (trabecular meshwork) is blocked by the iris, leading to high pressure. Acute angle closure glaucoma is a medical emergency of high eye pressure that can lead to sudden and permanent blindness. This attack of glaucoma occurs when the drain is suddenly blocked, and is associated with severe eye pain, blurring of vision, colored halos around lights, nausea and vomiting. Chronic angle closure glaucoma occurs when scar tissue slowly clogs the drain and leads to high eye pressure and optic nerve damage.

Other Types of Glaucoma

There are other types of glaucoma, such as glaucoma associated with trauma or inflammation, pseudoexfoliative glaucoma, pigmentary glaucoma, or neovascular (new blood vessel) glaucoma. Congenital glaucoma refers to a glaucoma someone is born with and is associated with abnormal eye anatomy.

How is Glaucoma Detected?

Glaucoma Vision Simulation

Regular eye examinations are the best way to detect glaucoma. During a complete and painless eye exam for glaucoma, your doctor will:

  • Check your vision
  • Measure your intraocular pressure (tonometry)
  • Examine the external anatomy of the eye
  • Evaluate the optic nerve appearance (ophthalmoscopy)

If there is concern for glaucoma, additional testing may be performed. This can include:

  • Gonioscopy (exam of the internal drains of the eye)
  • Imaging of the optic nerve
  • Visual field testing to detect peripheral (or side) vision loss

How often should a person with glaucoma see an ophthalmologist?

After the initial examination and diagnosis, glaucoma patients are managed like other patients with chronic disease, requiring regular visits to assess disease severity and response to therapy. Most patients will need periodic medical examinations, diagnostic testing and individualized management with drugs or procedures. Once the diagnosis and treatment regimen are established, the average patient needs to be seen 3-4 times yearly. Frequency of visits and testing depends upon risk of progressive damage and severity of glaucoma.

Eye drops for Glaucoma

If you are diagnosed with glaucoma, eye drops may be prescribed to control pressure in your eye. Eye drops lower eye pressure, either by decreasing the amount of fluid produced within the eye or by improving the drainage of fluid from the eye.

Glaucoma medications can preserve your vision, but they may also produce side effects. You should notify your ophthalmologist if you think you may be experiencing side effects.

Lasers Treatments

Laser treatment of Anatomical Narrow Angles or Angle Closure Glaucoma

Angle closure involves the lens coming too close to the iris and blocking the passage of fluid into the front of the eye. Relief of this block allows the iris to move away from the drain and the drainage angle to open, allowing escape of fluid and lowering of the eye pressure. This is now commonly and simply done by making a small hole in the iris with laser (laser iridotomy), which provides another route for fluid to enter the front of the eye. For additional information, ask your doctor about the laser iridotomy procedure.

Laser treatment of open angle Glaucoma

Laser trabeculoplasty is a simple office procedure that has gained wide acceptance in the treatment of open angle glaucoma. The newer laser surgical option for treatment of open-angle glaucoma is called selective laser trabeculoplasty, or S.L.T. During the S.L.T. procedure, your doctor directs a low frequency laser beam into the trabecular meshwork, which is the primary drainage region of the eye. The S.L.T. laser selectively treats specific cells leaving untreated portions of the trabecular meshwork intact. The procedure increases drainage of fluid out of the eye, resulting in lowered pressure in the eye. For more information, ask your doctor about the S.L.T. procedure.

Surgical Treatment of Glaucoma

There are many surgical options available to treat glaucoma. Filtering procedures have been developed to shunt the fluid from the inside of the eye to a reservoir under the conjunctiva on the surface of the eye to bring down eye pressure. Trabeculectomy is a common operation for the control of elevated intraocular pressure in adult glaucoma. Glaucoma drainage devices, such as the Ahmed valve or the Baerveldt drainage implant, are another excellent option to control eye pressure. Cataract surgery can help to lower eye pressure and has the benefit of improving vision at the same time. A variety of minimally invasive glaucoma surgeries may be performed as stand-alone procedures or in conjunction with cataract surgery to lower eye pressure. Research is ongoing and there are many novel and exciting glaucoma procedures. For more information about surgical treatment of glaucoma, and whether one of these procedures may be right for you, consult with your doctor.

Source: American Academy of Ophthalmology and American Glaucoma Society

Dr. Shayna Mangers is a fellowship trained glaucoma specialist and a member of the American Glaucoma Society. She will work with you to create a glaucoma treatment plan customized for you, taking into account your medical conditions, lifestyle, and personal preferences.

For more information, including frequently asked questions, please visit the American Glaucoma Society website.

Glaucoma Surgery FAQs

One of the leading causes of blindness in the United States, glaucoma occurs when the pressure inside the eye rises high enough to damage the optic nerve. It cannot be prevented, and vision lost to it cannot be restored. The high eye pressure associated with glaucoma is caused by blockages in the eye’s fluid drains. No one knows yet why the blockages form. People at the greatest risk include those who are over the age of 40, diabetic, near-sighted, African-American, or who have a family history of glaucoma.

Glaucoma often develops over many years without causing pain – so you may not experience vision loss until the disease has progressed. Symptoms are occasionally present and should be taken as warning signs that glaucoma may be developing; these include blurred vision, loss of peripheral vision, halo effects around lights and painful or reddened eyes.

Once diagnosed, glaucoma can be controlled. Treatments to lower pressure in the eye include non-surgical methods such as prescription eye drops and medications, laser therapy, and surgery.

Yes, if left untreated, glaucoma is an eye condition that causes permanent and irreversible vision loss and blindness. Because there are very discernible symptoms, it’s important to schedule regular eye exams with your eye doctor. Seeing your eye doctor regularly is your best line of defense against eye conditions like glaucoma.

Although glaucoma can be managed and treated, there is no cure for the eye condition. Once the “silent thief of sight” is diagnosed (as it’s often called), any lost vision is gone for good.

The key to controlling glaucoma is receiving an early diagnosis and starting treatment. When it’s caught early and treated, you can preserve your remaining vision, even though you can’t cure it.

Many treatments make it possible to live with glaucoma for years to come.

Few symptoms are associated with glaucoma, which is why it’s usually called the silent thief of sight. Most patients with glaucoma don’t realize they have the vision-stealing eye condition until they’ve already experienced irreversible vision loss.

The most common symptom associated with glaucoma is the slow loss of vision in the case of open-angle glaucoma. However, with angle-closure glaucoma, a rarer form of glaucoma, symptoms may include eye pain, nausea, blurry vision, headaches, and vomiting.

Angle-closure glaucoma is a medical emergency that requires immediate attention from a doctor.

There is no way to guarantee you’ll never develop glaucoma, as many things can cause it, like genetics. However, your best way to stay protected against this eye condition is to see your eye doctor.

Eye exams are the only way your ophthalmologist can detect and diagnose glaucoma. They can begin treatment to preserve your remaining vision if you have the condition. This may be in the form of eye drops to reduce intraocular pressure or other methods like surgery.

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