By Cheryl L. Dejewski
Glaucoma is known as the “Sneak Thief of Sight” because the most common type is painless and progresses so slowly that most people don’t notice symptoms for years—until severe permanent damage has occurred.
Glaucoma is a leading cause of blindness in the U.S., especially for African- Americans.
In fact, black Americans have a 6-8 times higher risk of developing glaucoma than whites, and a recent study found that one in five black Americans age 75 and older has glaucoma.
How can you protect yourself from losing sight to glaucoma?
The partners at Eye Care Specialists, an ophthalmology practice that focuses on educating and caring for Milwaukee’s African- American community, have an answer.
They recommend scheduling regular eye exams to check for the disease and, if diagnosed, follow the doctor’s recommendations for scheduling laser treatment and/or using prescription medication eye drops.
They also suggest you read the following information regarding glaucoma diagnosis, risks and treatment.
How Glaucoma Affects Vision
“Glaucoma is a condition in which fluid pressure in the eye affects the optic nerve, damaging how visual information is carried from the retina to the brain. Left untreated, it first causes loss of side vision and eventually all sight—permanently.
The most common type is painless and progresses so slowly that most people don’t notice symptoms for years—until severe permanent damage has occurred,” explains Mark Freedman, MD, a partner at Eye Care Specialists, a leading local ophthalmology practice that cares for tens of thousands of glaucoma patients.
Dr. Brett Rhode, Head of Ophthalmology at Aurora Sinai Medical Center, lists the following risk factors for glaucoma:
• Age: Glaucoma is most common in adults over age 40, and the risk increases with each decade. Regular screenings should start at this time.
• Genetics: If you have a sibling or parent with glaucoma, your risk of developing the disease increases 5 to 10 times.
As such, relatives of glaucoma patients should have their eyes checked every 1-2 years.
• Ethnicity: An African- American has a 6-8 times higher risk of going blind from glaucoma than a white person. Hispanics and Asians also have a higher risk rate.
• Other factors: Nearsightedness, diabetes (doubles the risk of glaucoma), steroid use, and having a previous eye injury.
Daniel Ferguson, MD, an eye surgeon who performs advanced drainage implant procedures to alleviate glaucoma-related eye pressure, advises, “Since glaucoma and other sight-threatening conditions often don’t exhibit early symptoms, regular eye exams are vital after age 40.”
A comprehensive exam should include: Ophthalmoscopy (a look inside at the back of the eye to check for signs of glaucoma abnormal optic nerve size and loss of pink coloring), Tonometry (check of inner eye pressure done with a puff of air or by painlessly touching the eye), Visual Field Testing (to create a computerized “map” of the range of existing sight, Gonioscopy (use of a special lens that checks if the drainage angle of the eye is open or closed), and an OCT laser scan (a painless scan similar to a CT scan to diagnose, track and treat changes to the optic nerve and retina— often before damage occurs).
Dangers of Having Glaucoma
Glaucoma-related “tunneling” (loss) of side vision makes it difficult to safely navigate stairs, stay in the proper driving lane, detect obstacles, etc. Glaucoma has been shown to increase the risk of having a car accident by up to six times and triples the risk of falling.
Medical Treatment Glaucoma can’t be cured, but treatment usually halts further damage and vision loss.
The most common type is a lifelong condition that requires continual management with prescription eye drops to lower pressure, by either decreasing fluid production or increasing outflow.
“In some cases, when drops alone cannot control pressure, side effects are intolerable, or multiple drops are required, laser treatment may be an alternative. SLT (increases fluid drainage) and ECP (decreases fluid production) procedures take less than 10 minutes to perform and are covered by Medicare and most insurance plans,” explains Daniel Paskowitz, MD, PhD, an ophthalmologist with credentials from Harvard and Johns Hopkins.
Benefits of Laser Treatment
“Laser procedures are highly successful at controlling glaucoma and reducing the need for drops or surgery. This is especially important for people who already have other conditions requiring daily medication(s) that they have to worry about buying, taking and tracking,” says eye care specialist Michael Raciti, MD.
Detection + Treatment = Vision Protection
“Glaucoma-related sight loss is often preventable with prompt diagnosis and care, but all of our expertise, equipment and treatments are of no use if patients don’t come in for check-ups,” says David Scheidt, OD, past president of the Milwaukee Optometric Society.
“Prompt diagnosis and treatment are vital to protecting and preserving vision.”
Encourage your siblings and other family members to be checked for glaucoma, especially if one of you has the disease.
If any of you do not have an eye care specialist, call 414-321-7035 for a free educational booklet and information about scheduling a comprehensive screening (usually covered by insurance or Medicare) at their offices on 7th & Wisconsin Avenue, Mayfair Road across from the mall, or 102nd & National Avenue.
They also offer educational eye-related information at www.eyecarespecialists.net.