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January 17, 2010

Glaucoma: Check for it, find trouble, treat early

Vision is an important part of everyday life, affecting how we communicate, work, play and interact with the world. Yet, you could be losing your vision and not even know it.

That's what glaucoma does.

It sneaks up on you, gradually.About 2.2 million people in the United States have glaucoma and another million do not know they have the disease.

So the National Eye Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is focusing attention on this sight-stealing disease during Glaucoma Awareness Month this January.

What it is

Glaucoma is a group of diseases that can damage the optic nerve, the network of fibers that carries visual signals to the brain. The clear fluid that nourishes the eye tissue normally flows in and out of a small space at the front of the eye. If the fluid drains too slowly, pressure builds up in the eye and damages the optic nerve. Without treatment to lower the pressure in the eye, glaucoma can cause permanent vision impairment or blindness.

In fact, glaucoma is the No. 1 cause of vision loss in African-Americans.

Open-angle glaucoma is the most common form of the disease. At first, open-angle glaucoma has no warning signs. It does not cause pain and vision remains normal. However, without treatment, side vision slowly begins to fail. Over time, vision may continue to decrease until objects straight ahead can no longer be seen and blindness results.

Detect it early

The only way to detect glaucoma before any vision is lost is through a comprehensive dilated eye examination. During this eye exam, drops are put into the eyes to allow the eye-care professional to get a better look at the back of the eye to detect damage before any vision is lost.

Regular eye exams are the key to saving vision from glaucoma. That is why it's so important for people at increased risk to have a dilated eye exam at least once every two years. People at higher risk for glaucoma include African-Americans over the age of 40; everyone over the age of 60, especially Mexican-Americans; and those with a family history of glaucoma.

A dilated eye exam doesn't hurt, it's easy and it could save your eyesight. Medicare even helps to pay for an eye exam every year for people with diabetes, those with a family history of glaucoma, African-Americans age 50 and older, and Hispanic-Americans age 65 and older.

No cure

There is no cure for glaucoma. However, there is hope. Glaucoma can usually be controlled to slow the progression of the disease and the risk of vision loss can be reduced if the disease is detected and treated early.

Treatment options

With early detection, glaucoma can be treated with medications or procedures to reduce eye pressure. Medications in the form of eye drops or pills may increase drainage or decrease production of fluid in the eye. Laser procedures or conventional surgery can help fluid drain from the eye. These treatments may save remaining vision, but none of them can restore sight already lost from glaucoma. Unfortunately, at least half of people with glaucoma don't receive any treatment at all because they are not aware of their condition.

So don't take a chance with glaucoma. Make an appointment now. Get your eyes examined.

For more information about glaucoma, visit the Healthy Vision 2010 Web site at, sponsored by the National Eye Institute and the Healthy Vision Consortium.

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