March 11 -17 2012 is World Glaucoma Week, an annual initiative to raise awareness about glaucoma, what it does to sight and how it might affect sufferers. The international theme for this year is “Don’t let glaucoma darken your life”. Glaucoma can darken a patient’s vision, it can darken the patient’s psychology and cause anguish about the future; it can also darken the lives of the patient’s family.
What is glaucoma?
Glaucoma is the second leading cause of blindness globally, yet still today, millions of people are unaware of it and unaware of the risk factors associated with it. It is a complicated disease in which damage to the optic nerve leads to progressive, irreversible vision loss. Glaucoma is not curable, and vision lost cannot be regained. Diagnosis is the first step to preserving your vision. The good news is that with early detection, through medical intervention and lifelong monitoring, further vision loss can be halted.
Glaucoma is a group of diseases, with open-angle glaucoma being the most common form, and there are virtually no symptoms or pain. It is known as the silent thief of site. Without diagnosis and treatment, patients will slowly lose their peripheral (side) vision. As glaucoma remains untreated, people may miss objects to the side and out the corner of their eye and will feel as if they are looking through a tunnel. Over time, central vision may decrease until no vision remains.
The following patient groups are at an increased risk of developing glaucoma:
Patients with a family history of glaucoma
Black ethnic groups
Patients of increased age
Patients with either high or low blood pressure
Long-term use of steroids
Patients with an elevated intra-ocular pressure (IOP).
Prevalence of glaucoma
The prevalence of glaucoma worldwide is estimated at about 70 million people. In South Africa, 5-7% of the black population and 3 -5% of the white population are affected. In many countries, approximately 50% of people with glaucoma do not know they have the disease.
Although there is currently no cure for glaucoma, a number of treatments are available to assist patients in lowering eye pressure, a major risk factor for optic nerve damage. These include topical eye drops which can be very effective.
People over the age of 40 should have a glaucoma test every two years, those between 50 and 60 years of age should be tested every 18 months and over the age of 60, people should get tested yearly. Those with a family history of glaucoma should be tested from the age of 30. This is especially important if the affected relative was under 40 years of age when the glaucoma was first discovered. Glaucoma tests are painless.
It is vital for those diagnosed with glaucoma to inform their relatives so that they can also go for an eye examination.
As long as you are diagnosed early, visit your doctor regularly and follow your recommended course of treatment, you can continue to live a full life. This World Glaucoma Week, all South Africans are urged to take action! Ensure that you have your eyes tested. Glaucoma cannot be self-detected.
Various clinics around the country will be hosting free Glaucoma testing during World Glaucoma Week. Watch your local press for details.
Fast facts about glaucoma:
How it develops
The eye is like a balloon. It maintains its shape by inside pressure. Aqueous humour, a clear, watery fluid is continuously produced inside the eye and escapes from the eye gradually to maintain the pressure inside. It circulates through the anterior segment of the eye and leaves through the drainage channels in the eye. This fluid is essential to maintain the structural integrity of the eye and also nourishes structures in the eye.
These drainage channels can become either non-functional (open-angle type) or become closed (closed angle type) resulting in elevated eye pressure. As the pressure rises, parts of the optic nerve gradually become damaged. Loss of nerve fibre function is reflected in loss of the visual field.
This will cause part of the field of vision to be lost. First, the edges of the visual field blur and disappear. As the pressure of one or both eyes rises, it reduces the blood supply to the nerves which send messages to the brain. These nerves then begin to fail and part of the field of vision is lost. If left untreated, the damage continues to spread and your view of the world becomes narrower, producing tunnel vision.
Glaucoma usually develops slowly and without any symptoms. Eyesight can be surprisingly bad by the time anything is noticed.
Is it painful?
In most cases, no, and that is why it is so important to visit your ophthalmologist regularly so that glaucoma can be detected before the optic nerve becomes damaged. Many people are often unaware that they have glaucoma until it has progressed so far that the damage has already been done and the eyesight has already been irreversibly affected.
Is the glaucoma test painful?
No. This test is painless. Your ophthalmologist will test for the following:
• Optic Nerve assessment
• Intraocular pressure
• Visual field test
Will it ever go away?
The most common types of glaucoma are chronic, which means that treatment is life-long. Remember as soon as you stop your treatment, the pressure will rise, and cause more damage to the eye, which will affect your eyesight.
Will I become blind?
Today, modern treatments for glaucoma will usually prevent your eyesight from deteriorating and will help to slow down any further loss of vision.
The message is clear: “Regular eye tests and taking your treatment as recommended by your doctor can stop you going blind”
How do I prevent glaucoma?
Currently there is no preventative method for glaucoma. Some people are more at risk of developing glaucoma than others. It is therefore important to visit your ophthalmologist regularly to test your eyes for glaucoma before it is too late.
(Press release, February 2012)
Glaucoma in a nutshell