Glaucoma: The Silent Thief of Sight
Glaucoma (the name given to a group of eye diseases affecting the optic nerve) is now the leading cause of blindness and affects over half a million people in the UK, of which just half have been diagnosed.
Glaucoma is an eye condition where the optic nerve is damaged by an increase in the pressure of the fluid inside the eye. A certain amount of pressure is always required to keep the eye healthy and in the correct shape. However, if the pressure is too high it can cause the optic nerve to become damaged. The optic nerve is the structure that transmits information to your brain about what your eyes are viewing. When the nerve becomes damaged, vision can be irreversibly diminished.
Unfortunately, nearly all varieties (there are 5 in total) of glaucoma have virtually no early symptoms, so a regular eye test is the only way to know whether you have the condition. Glaucoma onset affects the peripheral vision first (the off-centre parts of vision). Unfortunately, peripheral vision is not as sensitive as central vision and as such may go unnoticed by the sufferer. Consequently, damage may already have been caused without ever being detected. If left untreated, the damage can progress to tunnel vision and eventual loss of central vision and blindness.
Glaucoma is most common in people over the age of 40. Where glaucoma is undiagnosed and subsequently not treated it can lead to up to 40% of sight being irreversibly lost before the effects are even recognised. Conversely, if the condition is detected early and is well managed through frequent check-ups and treatment review, useful sight can be maintained for years to come.
Your likelihood of developing glaucoma increases with the following:
- Age – glaucoma becomes more likely as you get older. The most common type of glaucoma (primary open angle) affects 2% of men and women over 40 and around 10% of people aged over 75
- Family history – if you have a close relative, such as a parent, brother or sister who has glaucoma, you’re at increased risk of developing the disease
- Ethnic origin – people of African, Afro-Caribbean or Asian origin are at increased risk of developing certain types of glaucoma
- Other medical conditions – conditions such as short sightedness, long-sightedness and diabetes can increase your risk of glaucoma
There are several quick and painless diagnostic tests that can be carried out to identify glaucoma and monitor its progression. An eye pressure test using an instrument called a tonometer is used to measure the pressure inside your eye; a gonioscopy examination which looks at the front outer edge of the eye; a visual field test to check peripheral vision; and an assessment undertaken by a clinician of the optic nerve, often using an Optical Coherence Topographer (OCT), are all used to test for the disease.
If glaucoma is picked up during an eye test, a referral to an ophthalmologist for further diagnostic tests is required. Early detection and treatment is key to reduce the opportunity for sight loss.
The ophthalmologist will confirm your diagnosis and find out:
- How far the condition has progressed
- How much damage the glaucoma has done to your eyes
- What level of forward monitoring of the disease is required
- What is the best course of treatment
The aim of glaucoma treatment is usually to reduce the pressure in the eye to limit any further damage it may cause. Treatment in the majority of cases is the use of eye drops on a daily basis. Occasionally other treatments may be required.
Once diagnosed with glaucoma, maintaining regular check-ups with consultant ophthalmologist oversight is vital in managing the condition and minimising the impact of the disease. Glaucoma will frequently require alterations to the treatment plan making regular assessment essential.
Glaucoma diagnosis and treatment can be provided by the NHS or privately. Some private companies like eCare Medical Eye Services are now offering monthly payment plans to ensure regular on-going and frequent care is affordable, transparent, and timely management of the chronic condition is ensured