World Glaucoma Week wraps up today after shedding light on a disease that affects 1.9 per cent of Canada’s population.
Dr. Rhea Anderson, president of the Saskatchewan Association of Optometrists, said glaucoma is a condition that causes damage to the optic nerve in the eye. The optic nerve is the part of the eye that sends information to the brain.
“It’s crucial that the nerve is healthy so the information gets from point A to point B," Anderson said. "When you have a condition like glaucoma, where the optic nerve is damaged, the information isn’t transmitted as efficiently as it should be so people gradually will lose a portion of their side vision."
The disease does progress over time, causing those with the disease to lose more and more of their side vision, eventually ending up with only a small tunnel of vision in their central visual field.
Anderson said glaucoma is a disease where most cases are asymptomatic, which means people often don’t show any symptoms in the very early stages of the disease.
“By the time patients develop symptoms it’s often very far advanced to the point that we have a hard time controlling it or maintaining an adequate level of vision,” she said.
To help prevent the vision loss associated with glaucoma, Anderson said having regular eye exams are important. She said optometrists can look inside the eye, asses the shape and size of the optic nerve, monitory it for stability, shape and size changes over time and test the pressure inside the eye.
“Often when people think of glaucoma they associate it with that puff of air when you have that test where they measure the pressure inside the eye because many types of glaucoma is linked to a buildup of eye pressure,” Anderson said.
Despite the common presumption, Anderson said not all cases are associated with a buildup of pressure. She said there are many cases where there is no high pressure, but normal tension can lead to programed cell death of the nerve fibers inside of the eye.
“If patients do have high pressure it is possible that they will experience some symptoms which could include a hot, red painful eye, halos around lights, blurry vision, that type of thing. Even a headache can often be a symptom of elevated pressure inside of the eye,” Anderson said.
If patients are showing symptoms, optometrists want to see them right away. Anderson said getting checked every year or two helps to ensure that glaucoma doesn’t go undiagnosed and allows patients to maintain a good quality of life and a good level of vision.
Glaucoma mostly affects adults over the age of 40 but Anderson said that doesn’t mean it’s only adults over 40, anyone can get it.
“There is a higher risk in people that have a history of glaucoma. If they have a higher [glasses] prescription, for example if thet're more near-sighted. Diabetics are higher risks if they have a history of eye trauma,” she said.
Certain medications can also cause people to be at a higher risk including certain steroids like prednisone. Anderson said certain ethnic backgrounds are higher risk for the disease including African Americans, Irish, Russian, Hispanic, Japanese, Inuit and Scandinavian.
Once glaucoma is diagnosed it can’t be reversed, Anderson said. Optometrists can slow down the process through things like eyedrops or surgery. The drops help to control the pressure inside the eye and protect the optic nerve.
“In some cases there’s actually a surgery that can be done to treat glaucoma as well, either with a laser or an instrument,” Anderson said.
The best way to fight against glaucoma, Anderson said, is to visit an optometrist every year or two, especially for those who have higher risk factors.
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