You’ve been noticing problems with your eyes for weeks: redness, blurred vision, pain. Now you’re wondering: are these glaucoma symptoms?
The answer is, maybe. When you have issues with your eyes, they can be caused by any number of factors. The only way to get a definitive diagnosis is to see a physician as soon as possible.
“Glaucoma is a particularly troublesome condition because it often starts out symptom-free. People might notice decreased peripheral vision (i.e. loss of vision to the sides of their eyes), but otherwise, their eyesight may seem fine. By the time their vision becomes noticeably compromised, the disease may have already become advanced,” explains Ahmara Ross, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology at The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
Are there glaucoma symptoms I should watch for?
First, it helps to know a little bit about the two kinds of glaucoma.
1) Open-angle: The “angle” refers to the area between the iris (the color part of the eye) and the cornea (the outside surface of your eye). “This junction creates an “angle” inside the eye which allows fluid, called aqueous humor, to leave the eye inside the body. This fluid is different from tears which drain outside the eye,” explains Qi Cui, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology at The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
“In open-angle glaucoma, although this angle is wide open in appearance, the fluid inside the eye drains too slowly. This causes the fluid to “back up” inside your eye, creating elevated pressure inside the eye,” says Dr. Ross.
2) Angle-closure: In this type of glaucoma, the angle in the eye has actually closed in one or more areas. Because the aqueous humor fluid can’t flow as freely as it should, it “backs up” and can cause an increase in pressure inside the eye.
The fluid inside your eyes is supposed to remain at a steady, healthy pressure, however, both types of glaucoma cause that pressure to rise to an unhealthy level.
“That resulting high pressure can damage your optic nerves, which are bundles of nerve fibers that transmit visual signals from your eyes to your brain. This damage can cause irreversible vision loss,” explains Dr. Cui.
Open-angle glaucoma usually develops slowly, and there are usually no symptoms. Unfortunately, it’s also the most common type of glaucoma, affecting 4 million Americans.
So, how do I know if I have glaucoma?
The best way to find out whether open-angle glaucoma is occurring is to get regular eye exams (usually once a year). An ophthalmologist will examine your optic nerves and check your eye pressure for any unusual readings.
Angle-closure glaucoma, on the other hand, usually does present symptoms, including:
- Blurry vision
- Seeing rainbow-colored circles around bright lights
- Eye pain and headache
- Nausea or vomiting
- Loss of vision
These symptoms can come on gradually or very suddenly. If you experience any of them, go to the hospital right away, as this is a medical emergency.
Isn’t glaucoma an “old person’s” disease?
About 2.2 million Americans have been diagnosed with glaucoma, making it the second-leading cause of blindness in the world, after cataracts. While adults over age 60 are at higher risk, different types of glaucoma affect people of all ages, even babies and young adults.
You’re also at a higher risk if you’re:
- African-American or Latino
- Severely nearsighted
- A first-degree relative of a person diagnosed with glaucoma
- Someone with cardiovascular disease
Is there any good news about glaucoma?
Yes. If your ophthalmologist diagnoses you with open-angle glaucoma, treatment can delay its progression and preserve your eyesight. Some treatments your physician might recommend are:
- Medication (usually eyedrops or pills)
- Laser trabeculoplasty—a type of laser surgery to drain fluids in your eye
- Conventional surgery—the surgeon removes very tiny pieces of tissue to improve fluid drainage in your eye
Angle-closure glaucoma can also be treated with prompt laser surgery and medications to remove any blockage that is occurring and restore the healthy flow of fluid in your eye.
Is there any way I can prevent glaucoma?
“While there are no proven ways to reduce the risk of glaucoma, there are steps that you can take to prevent co-morbid other diseases such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and AMD progression which can contribute to overall eye health,” says Dr. Ross. These include:
- Early diagnosis and treatment
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Staying physically active
- Keeping your blood pressure under control
- Avoiding smoking
“Your eyes are invaluable. They help you create happy memories with family, friends, and places you love. Stay as healthy as you can to protect those precious assets,” says Dr. Cui.
And keep having your eye exams yearly (or as often as your physician recommends) to hold onto your sight. It’s an investment well worth your time.