Anyone from babies to senior citizens can be at risk for developing glaucoma. Without initial treatment, glaucoma can cause permanent blindness. The good news is, while glaucoma can’t be cured, early treatment can control it or slow progression.

What is glaucoma? Glaucoma is a disease characterized by progressive damage to the optic nerve, which is caused by elevated intraocular pressure (pressure inside the eye). Damage to the optic nerve as consequence of glaucoma can lead to painless peripheral vision loss and ultimately partial or complete loss of vision. The vision loss is irreversible once it occurs.

As many as 3 million Americans have glaucoma, and many people who have glaucoma don’t notice any symptoms until they start to lose some of their eyesight. Chronic open angle glaucoma damages peripheral vision in a gradual, insidious way, usually over years, before you even know there’s a problem.

A complete eye exam includes a measurement of your eye pressure, as well as a detailed look at the optic nerve through dilated pupils. The dilated eye exam is every bit as important as the eye pressure measurement since many people can have glaucomatous nerve damage even in the face of seemingly normal pressures (normal tension glaucoma). If your eye doctor is suspicious that you might have glaucoma, you may be asked to do a visual field. This office test involves looking for dots of light on a computer screen so that a detailed map of your central and peripheral vision can be mapped. The diagnosis is typically made based on the measurement of pressure, optic nerve appearance and visual field analysis.

If you are diagnosed with glaucoma, what are the next steps? Most people with glaucoma are treated with various eye drops designed to lower eye pressure, and thus slows progression of the disease. Laser may be used to lower pressure as well, and in a small number of cases, surgery may be required for pressure control. Although glaucoma is common, with treatment, most people can lead normal lives without debilitating vision loss.

Why are annual eye exams so important? Adults older than 40 should have dilated exams every two to four years and more often with each additional decade of life. Those with glaucoma risk factors, including high eye pressure, suspicious optic nerve appearance and family history, may need more frequent assessments as determined by their eye doctor.

This week’s Health Talk was written by Ryan W. Rogers, MD, board-certified ophthalmologist at Marble Valley Eye Care, a department of Rutland Regional Medical Center. For more information, visit www.rrmc.org/services/eye-care or call Marble Valley Eye Care at 802-773-8328.

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