What Is Glaucoma?

Glaucoma is the name for a group of diseases that can destroy the optic nerve, the main nerve of the eye. The word glaucoma means “hard eyeball.” Any one of the conditions classified as glaucoma can lead to irreversible blindness by damaging the optic nerve.

Glaucoma sneaks up on people. There are no symptoms other than loss of vision, which can occur so gradually that many people do not realize it is happening. The first vision loss is usually peripheral vision (what you can see off to the sides when you are looking straight ahead).

Even though glaucoma cannot be cured, it can be treated. If it is spotted in its early stages, before any sight is lost, blindness can almost always be prevented. But the longer glaucoma remains untreated, the more vision can be lost.

Glaucoma is considered a thief of eyesight. The only way to make sure that it doesn’t sneak up is to have regular eye exams. This is especially true for people who:

  • Have a family history of the condition
  • Are black
  • Are over age 40

For reasons still unknown, some people have optic nerves that are more likely to be damaged-usually when fluid pressure in the eye increases. Some experts speculate that these people may have an inadequate blood supply to the optic nerve, or that the tissues supporting the nerve are weak. But no one really knows for sure.

In most cases, there is no pain associated with glaucoma and no early warning signs. That is why it is so important to have regular eye exams.

How Glaucoma Progresses

  • The first time many people realize that there might be something wrong with their eyes is when they begin to lose their vision.
  • The first to go is peripheral vision, which is what you see on the sides when you look straight ahead.
  • Left untreated, glaucoma will eventually lead to tunnel vision, where all a person can see is what is directly in front of the eye.
  • From there it can deteriorate to complete blindness.

There are several different types of glaucoma. The most common is called “open-angle” or “chronic simple” glaucoma. It occurs in 80 percent of all people with glaucoma.

Other types of glaucoma are:

  • Angle-closure glaucoma, of which there are two types: acute angle-closure and chronic angle-closure
  • Neovascular glaucoma
  • Pigment dispersion and exfoliation glaucoma
  • Normal-pressure, or low-pressure, glaucoma
  • Infantile glaucoma

Facts About Glaucoma

  • More than three million Americans have glaucoma, but half of them don’t know it yet.
  • Glaucoma damages the optic nerve, which is the bundle of more than 1.2 million different nerve fibers that transmit to the brain what the eye sees.
  • Everyone should have a glaucoma check by the time they are 40. They should do so even earlier if they are black or if glaucoma runs in their family.


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