People at risk should get eye exams at least every two years. They include
- African Americans over age 40
- People over age 60, especially Mexican Americans
- People with a family history of glaucoma
Early treatment can help protect your eyes against vision loss. Treatments usually include prescription eyedrops and/or surgery.
National Eye Institute
What is glaucoma?
Glaucoma is a group of diseases that can damage the eye's optic nerve and result in vision loss and blindness. Glaucoma occurs when the normal fluid pressure inside the eyes slowly rises. However, with early treatment, you can often protect your eyes against serious vision loss.
What is the optic nerve?
The optic nerve is a bundle of more than 1 million nerve fibers. It connects the retina to the brain. (See diagram below.) The retina is the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye. A healthy optic nerve is necessary for good vision.
What are some other forms of glaucoma?
Open-angle glaucoma is the most common form. Some people have other types of the disease.
Low-tension or normal-tension
Optic nerve damage and narrowed side
vision occur in people with normal
eye pressure. Lowering eye pressure
at least 30 percent through
medicines slows the disease in some
people. Glaucoma may worsen in
others despite low pressures.
A comprehensive medical history is important in identifying other potential risk factors, such as low blood pressure, that contribute to low-tension glaucoma. If no risk factors are identified, the treatment options for low-tension glaucoma are the same as for open-angle glaucoma.
The fluid at the front of the eye
cannot reach the angle and leave the
eye. The angle gets blocked by part
of the iris. People with this type
of glaucoma have a sudden increase
in eye pressure. Symptoms include
severe pain and nausea, as well as
redness of the eye and blurred
vision. If you have these symptoms,
you need to seek treatment
This is a medical emergency. If your doctor is unavailable, go to the nearest hospital or clinic. Without treatment to improve the flow of fluid, the eye can become blind in as few as one or two days. Usually, prompt laser surgery and medicines can clear the blockage and protect sight.
Children are born with a defect in
the angle of the eye that slows the
normal drainage of fluid. These
children usually have obvious
symptoms, such as cloudy eyes,
sensitivity to light, and excessive
tearing. Conventional surgery
typically is the suggested
treatment, because medicines may
have unknown effects in infants and
be difficult to administer. Surgery
is safe and effective. If surgery is
done promptly, these children
usually have an excellent chance of
having good vision.
- Secondary glaucomas. These can develop as complications of other medical conditions. These types of glaucomas are sometimes associated with eye surgery or advanced cataracts, eye injuries, certain eye tumors, or uveitis (eye inflammation). Pigmentary glaucoma occurs when pigment from the iris flakes off and blocks the meshwork, slowing fluid drainage. A severe form, called neovascular glaucoma, is linked to diabetes. Corticosteroid drugs used to treat eye inflammations and other diseases can trigger glaucoma in some people. Treatment includes medicines, laser surgery, or conventional surgery.
Causes and Risk Factors
How does open-angle glaucoma damage the optic nerve?
In the front of the eye is a space called the anterior chamber. A clear fluid flows continuously in and out of the chamber and nourishes nearby tissues. The fluid leaves the chamber at the open angle where the cornea and iris meet. (See diagram below.) When the fluid reaches the angle, it flows through a spongy meshwork, like a drain, and leaves the eye.
Sometimes, when the fluid reaches the angle, it passes too slowly through the meshwork drain. As the fluid builds up, the pressure inside the eye rises to a level that may damage the optic nerve. When the optic nerve is damaged from increased pressure, open-angle glaucoma--and vision loss--may result. That's why controlling pressure inside the eye is important.
Does increased eye pressure mean that I have glaucoma?
Not necessarily. Increased eye pressure means you are at risk for glaucoma, but does not mean you have the disease. A person has glaucoma only if the optic nerve is damaged. If you have increased eye pressure but no damage to the optic nerve, you do not have glaucoma. However, you are at risk. Follow the advice of your eye care professional.
Can I develop glaucoma if I have increased eye pressure?
Not necessarily. Not every person with increased eye pressure will develop glaucoma. Some people can tolerate higher eye pressure better than others. Also, a certain level of eye pressure may be high for one person but normal for another.
Whether you develop glaucoma depends on the level of pressure your optic nerve can tolerate without being damaged. This level is different for each person. That's why a comprehensive dilated eye exam is very important. It can help your eye care professional determine what level of eye pressure is normal for you.
Can I develop glaucoma without an increase in my eye pressure?
Yes. Glaucoma can develop without increased eye pressure. This form of glaucoma is called low-tension or normal-tension glaucoma. It is not as common as open-angle glaucoma.
Who is at risk for glaucoma?
Anyone can develop glaucoma. Some people are at higher risk than others. They include:
- African Americans over age 40.
- Everyone over age 60, especially Mexican Americans.
- People with a family history of glaucoma.
Among African Americans, studies show that glaucoma is:
- Five times more likely to occur in African Americans than in Caucasians.
- About four times more likely to cause blindness in African Americans than in Caucasians.
- Fifteen times more likely to cause blindness in African Americans between the ages of 45-64 than in Caucasians of the same age group.
A comprehensive dilated eye exam can reveal more risk factors, such as high eye pressure, thinness of the cornea, and abnormal optic nerve anatomy. In some people with certain combinations of these high-risk factors, medicines in the form of eyedrops reduce the risk of developing glaucoma by about half.
Medicare covers an annual comprehensive dilated eye exam for some people at high risk for glaucoma.
What can I do to protect my vision?
Studies have shown that the early detection and treatment of glaucoma, before it causes major vision loss, is the best way to control the disease. So, if you fall into one of the high-risk groups for the disease, make sure to have your eyes examined through dilated pupils every two years by an eye care professional.
If you are being treated for glaucoma, be sure to take your glaucoma medicine every day. See your eye care professional regularly.
You also can help protect the vision of family members and friends who may be at high risk for glaucoma--African Americans over age 40; everyone over age 60, especially Mexican Americans; and people with a family history of the disease. Encourage them to have a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once every two years. Remember: Lowering eye pressure in glaucoma's early stages slows progression of the disease and helps save vision.
Symptoms and Detection
What are the symptoms of glaucoma?
At first, there are no symptoms. Vision stays normal, and there is no pain.
However, as the disease progresses, a person with glaucoma may notice his or her side vision gradually failing. That is, objects in front may still be seen clearly, but objects to the side may be missed.
As glaucoma remains untreated, people may miss objects to the side and out of the corner of their eye. Without treatment, people with glaucoma will slowly lose their peripheral (side) vision. They seem to be looking through a tunnel. Over time, straight-ahead vision may decrease until no vision remains.
Glaucoma can develop in one or both eyes.
as viewed by a person with
How is glaucoma detected?
Glaucoma is detected through a comprehensive eye exam that includes:
- Visual acuity test. This eye chart test measures how well you see at various distances. A tonometer measures pressure inside the eye to detect glaucoma.
- Visual field test. This test measures your side (peripheral) vision. It helps your eye care professional tell if you have lost side vision, a sign of glaucoma.
- Dilated eye exam. Drops are placed in your eyes to widen, or dilate, the pupils. Your eye care professional uses a special magnifying lens to examine your retina and optic nerve for signs of damage and other eye problems. After the exam, your close-up vision may remain blurred for several hours.
- Tonometry. An instrument (right) measures the pressure inside the eye. Numbing drops may be applied to your eye for this test.
- Pachymetry. A numbing drop is applied to your eye. Your eye care professional uses an ultrasonic wave instrument to measure the thickness of your cornea.
Can glaucoma be treated?
Yes. Immediate treatment for early stage, open-angle glaucoma can delay progression of the disease. That's why early diagnosis is very important.
Glaucoma treatments include medicines, laser trabeculoplasty, conventional surgery, or a combination of any of these. While these treatments may save remaining vision, they do not improve sight already lost from glaucoma.
Medicines, in the form of eyedrops
or pills, are the most common early
treatment for glaucoma. Some
medicines cause the eye to make less
fluid. Others lower pressure by
helping fluid drain from the eye.
Before you begin glaucoma treatment, tell your eye care professional about other medicines you may be taking. Sometimes the drops can interfere with the way other medicines work.
Glaucoma medicines may be taken several times a day. Most people have no problems. However, some medicines can cause headaches or other side effects. For example, drops may cause stinging, burning, and redness in the eyes. Many drugs are available to treat glaucoma. If you have problems with one medicine, tell your eye care professional. Treatment with a different dose or a new drug may be possible.
Because glaucoma often has no symptoms, people may be tempted to stop taking, or may forget to take, their medicine. You need to use the drops or pills as long as they help control your eye pressure. Regular use is very important. Make sure your eye care professional shows you how to put the drops into your eye. See tips (hyperlink to "How should I use my glaucoma eyedrops?") on using your glaucoma eyedrops.
Laser trabeculoplasty. Laser trabeculoplasty helps fluid drain out of the eye. Your doctor may suggest this step at any time. In many cases, you need to keep taking glaucoma drugs after this procedure.
Laser trabeculoplasty is performed in your doctor's office or eye clinic. Before the surgery, numbing drops will be applied to your eye. As you sit facing the laser machine, your doctor will hold a special lens to your eye. A high-intensity beam of light is aimed at the lens and reflected onto the meshwork inside your eye. You may see flashes of bright green or red light. The laser makes several evenly spaced burns that stretch the drainage holes in the meshwork. This allows the fluid to drain better.
Like any surgery, laser surgery can cause side effects, such as inflammation. Your doctor may give you some drops to take home for any soreness or inflammation inside the eye. You need to make several follow-up visits to have your eye pressure monitored.
If you have glaucoma in both eyes, only one eye will be treated at a time. Laser treatments for each eye will be scheduled several days to several weeks apart.
Studies show that laser surgery is very good at reducing the pressure in some patients. However, its effects can wear off over time. Your doctor may suggest further treatment.
Conventional surgery makes a new
opening for the fluid to leave the
eye. (See diagram.) Your doctor may
suggest this treatment at any time.
Conventional surgery often is done
after medicines and laser surgery
have failed to control pressure.
For several weeks after the surgery, you must put drops in the eye to fight infection and inflammation. These drops will be different from those you may have been using before surgery.
As with laser surgery, conventional surgery is performed on one eye at a time. Usually the operations are four to six weeks apart. Conventional surgery is about 60 to 80 percent effective at lowering eye pressure. If the new drainage opening narrows, a second operation may be needed. Conventional surgery works best if you have not had previous eye surgery, such as a cataract operation.
In some instances, your vision may not be as good as it was before conventional surgery. Conventional surgery can cause side effects, including cataract, problems with the cornea, and inflammation or infection inside the eye. The buildup of fluid in the back of the eye may cause some patients to see shadows in their vision. If you have any of these problems, tell your doctor so a treatment plan can be developed.
Conventional surgery makes a new opening for the fluid to leave the eye.
How should I use my glaucoma eyedrops?
If eyedrops have been prescribed for treating your glaucoma, you need to use them properly and as instructed by your eye care professional. Proper use of your glaucoma medication can improve the medicine's effectiveness and reduce your risk of side effects. To properly apply your eyedrops, follow these steps:
- First, wash your hands.
- Hold the bottle upside down.
- Tilt your head back.
- Hold the bottle in one hand and place it as close as possible to the eye.
- With the other hand, pull down your lower eyelid. This forms a pocket.
- Place the prescribed number of drops into the lower eyelid pocket. If you are using more than one eyedrop, be sure to wait at least five minutes before applying the second eyedrop.
- Close your eye OR press the lower lid lightly with your finger for at least one minute. Either of these steps keeps the drops in the eye and helps prevent the drops from draining into the tear duct, which can increase your risk of side effects
What can I do if I already have lost some vision from glaucoma?
If you have lost some sight from glaucoma, ask your eye care professional about low vision services and devices that may help you make the most of your remaining vision. Ask for a referral to a specialist in low vision.
Many community organizations and agencies offer information about low vision counseling, training, and other special services for people with visual impairments. A nearby school of medicine or optometry may provide low vision services.
What research is being done?
A large amount of research is being done in the U.S. to learn what causes glaucoma and to improve its diagnosis and treatment. For instance, the National Eye Institute (NEI) is funding a number of studies to find out what causes fluid pressure to increase in the eye. By learning more about this process, doctors may be able to find the exact cause of the disease and learn better how to prevent and treat it. The NEI also supports clinical trials of new drugs and surgical techniques that show promise against glaucoma.
rare, pigment dispersion syndrome and
pigmentary glaucoma tend to occur at a
younger age than primary open angle
Pigment dispersion syndrome occurs when pigment granules that normally adhere to the back of the iris (the colored part of the eye), flake off into the clear fluid produced in the eye, called the aqueous humor. Sometimes these granules flow toward the drainage canals of the eye, slowly clogging them and raising eye pressure. This rise in eye pressure can damage the optic nerve, the nerve in the back of the eye that carries visual images to the brain. If this happens, pigment dispersion syndrome becomes pigmentary glaucoma.
Doctors usually treat pigmentary glaucoma with eyedrops such as Betagan, Timoptic, Optipranlol and Xalatan. These eyedrops have a relatively low incidence of side effects and are generally well-tolerated in younger patients. Doctors may also use medications such as Pilocar, and Ocusert, which are from a class of drugs called miotics. These medications cause the pupil to constrict (become smaller) and inhibit the iris from rubbing against the supporting fibers of the eye’s lens, helping to prevent further release of pigment. However, miotics have side effects such as blurred vision which can limit their use.
In some patients, a laser treatment called argon laser trabeculoplasty works well. This procedure helps open up the drainage system in the eye to increase fluid flow, which lowers eye pressure and protects the optic nerve.
Another treatment for pigmentary glaucoma is a procedure called a laser iridotomy. A laser is used to make a small hole in the iris, causing the iris to move away from the lens of the eye. This prevents the lens fibers from scraping the pigment from the iris and clogging the eye’s fluid flow. However, it has limitations and does not always achieve its desired effect. Researchers are now conducting more evaluations of this procedure to determine its effectiveness.
The Exercise Connection
Studies have found that vigorous exercise such as jogging and basketball can cause more pigment to be released from the iris, which can further block eye drainage. Patients with pigment dispersion syndrome or pigmentary glaucoma should discuss this issue with their doctor.
Progression of pigment dispersion syndrome into pigmentary glaucoma
It is estimated that pigment dispersion syndrome develops into pigmentary glaucoma in about 30% of cases. Although pigment dispersion syndrome appears to strike both men and women at an equal rate, researchers are investigating why men develop pigmentary glaucoma up to three times more often than women. Studies have also shown this syndrome develops into pigmentary glaucoma at a younger age in men than in women.
Glaucoma can be treated with eye drops, pills, laser surgery, traditional surgery or a combination of these methods. The goal of any treatment is to prevent loss of vision, as vision loss from glaucoma is irreversible. The good news is that glaucoma can be managed if detected early, and that with medical and/or surgical treatment, most people with glaucoma will not lose their sight.
Taking medications regularly, as prescribed, is crucial to preventing vision-threatening damage. That is why it is important for you to discuss side effects with your doctor. While every drug has some potential side effects, it is important to note that many patients experience no side effects at all. You and your doctor need to work as a team in the battle against glaucoma. Your doctor has many options. They include:
It is important to take your medications regularly and exactly as prescribed if you are to control your eye pressure. Since eye drops are absorbed into the bloodstream, tell your doctor about all medications you are currently taking. Ask your doctor and/or pharmacist if the medications you are taking together are safe. Some drugs can be dangerous when mixed with other medications. To minimize absorption into the bloodstream and maximize the amount of drug absorbed in the eye, close your eye for one to two minutes after administering the drops and press your index finger lightly against the inferior nasal corner of your eyelid to close the tear duct which drains into the nose. While almost all eye drops may cause an uncomfortable burning or stinging sensation at first, the discomfort should last for only a few seconds.
Sometimes, when eye drops don't sufficiently control IOP, pills may be prescribed in addition to drops. These pills, which have more systemic side effects than drops, also serve to turn down the eye's faucet and lessen the production of fluid. These medications are usually taken from two to four times daily. It is important to share this information with all your other doctors so they can prescribe medications for you which will not cause potentially dangerous interactions.
When medications does not achieve the desired results, or have intolerable side effects, your ophthalmologist may suggest surgery.
Laser surgery has become increasingly popular as an intermediate step between drugs and traditional surgery through the long-term success rates are variable. The most common type performed for open-angle glaucoma is called trabeculoplasty. This procedure takes between 10 and 15 minutes, is painless, and can be performed in either a doctor's office or an outpatient facility. The laser beam (a high energy light beam) is focused upon the eye's drain. Contrary to what many people think, the laser does not bum a hole through the eye. Instead, the eye's drainage system is changed in very subtle ways so that aqueous fluid is able to pass more easily out of the drain, thus lowering IOP.
You may go home and resume your normal activities following surgery. Your doctor will likely check your IOP one to two hours following laser surgery. After this procedure, many patients respond well enough to be able to avoid or delay surgery. While it may take a few weeks to see the full pressure-lowering effect of this procedure, during which time you may have to continue taking your medications, many patients are eventually able to discontinue some of their medications. This, however, is not true in all cases. Your doctor is the best judge of determining whether or not you will still need medication. Complications from laser are minimal, which is why this procedure has become increasingly popular and some centers are recommending the use of laser before drops in some patients.
Argon Laser Trabeculoplasty (ALT) -- for open angle glaucoma
The laser treats the trabecular meshwork of the eye, increasing the drainage outflow, thereby lowering the IOP. In many cases, medication will still be needed. Usually, half the trabecular meshwork is treated first. If necessary, the other half can be treated as a separate procedure. This method decreases the risk of increased pressure following surgery. Argon laser trabeculoplasty has successfully lowered eye pressure in up to 75 percent of patients treated. This type of laser can be performed only two to three times in each eye over a lifetime.
Selective Laser Trabeculoplasty (SLT) -- for open angle glaucoma
SLT is a newer laser that uses very low levels of energy. It is termed "selective" since it leaves portions of the trabecular meshwork intact. for this reason, it is believed that SLT, unlike other types of laser surgery, may be safely repeated. Some authors have reported that a second repeat application of SLT or SLT after prior ALT is effective at lowering IOP.
Laser Peripheral Iridotomy (LPI) -- for angle closure glaucoma
This procedure is used to make an opening through the iris, allowing aqueous fluid to flow from behind the iris directly to the anterior chamber of the eye. This allows the fluid to bypass its normal route. LPI is the preferred method for managing a wide variety of angle-closure glaucomas that have some degree of pupillary blockage. This laser is most often used to treat an anatomically narrow angle and prevent angle closure glaucoma attacks.
Two laser procedures for open angle glaucoma involve reducing the amount of aqueous humor in the eye by destroying part of the ciliary body, which produces the fluid. These treatments are usually reserved for use in eyes that either have elevated IOP after having failed other more traditional treatments, including filtering surgery, or those in which filtering surgery is not possible or advisable due to the shape or other features of the eye. Transscleral cyclophotocoagulation uses a laser to direct energy through the outer sclera of the eye to reach and destroy portions of the ciliary processes, without causing damage to the overlying tissues. With endoscopic cyclophotocoagulation (ECP), the instrument is placed inside the eye through a surgical incision, so that the laser energy is applied directly to the ciliary body tissue.
When medications and laser therapies do not adequately lower eye pressure, doctors may recommend conventional surgery. The most common of these operations is called a trabeculectomy, whic his used in both open-angle and closed-angle glaucomas. In this procedure, the surgeon creates a passage in the sclera (the white part of the eye) for draining excess eye fluid. A flap is created that allows fluid to escape, but which does not deflate the eyeball. A small bubble of fluid called a "bleb" often forms over the opening on the surface of the eye, which is a sign that fluid is draining out into the space between the sclera and conjunctiva. Occasionally, the surgically created drainage hole begins to close and the IOP rises again. This happens because the body trieds to heal the new opening, as if it was an injury. Many surgeons perform trabeculectomy with an anti-fibrotic agent that is placed on the eye during surgery and reduces such scarring during the healing period. The most common anti-fibrotic agent is Mitomycin-C. Another is 5-Fluorouracil, or 5-FU.
About 50 percent of patients no longer require glaucoma medications after surgery for a significant length of time. Thirty-five to 40 percent of those who still need medication have better control of their IOP. A trabeculectomy is usually an outpatient procedure. The number of post-operative visits to the doctor varies, and some activities, such as driving, reading, bending and heavy lifting must be limited for two to four weeks after surgery.
Drainage Implant Surgery
Several different devices have been developed to aid the drainage of aqueous humor out of the anterior chamber and lower IOP. All of these drainage devices share a similar design which consists of a small silicone tube that extends into the anterior chamber of the eye. The tube is connected to one or more plates, which are sutured to the surface of the eye, usually not visible. Fluid is collected on the plate and then absorbed by the tissues in the eye. This type of surgery is thought to lower IOP less than trabeculectomy but is preferred in patients whose IOP cannot be controlled with traditional surgery or who have previous scarring.
Newer nonpenetrating glaucoma surgery, which does not enter the anterior chamber of the eye, shows great promise in minimizing postoperative complications and lowering the risk for infection. However, such surgery often requires a greater surgical acument and generally does not lower IOP as much as trabeculectomy. Furthermore, long term studies are needed to assess these procedures and to determine their role in the clinical management of glaucoma patients.
Some Promising Surgical Alternatives
The ExPress mini glaucoma shunt is a stainless steel device that is inserted into the anterior chamber of the eye and placed under a scleral flap. It lowers IOP by diverting aqueous humor from the anterior chamber. The ExPress offers the glaucoma surgeon an alternative to either repeating a trabeculectomy or placing a more extensive silicone tube shunt in those patients whose IOP is higher than the optic nerve can tolerate.
The Trabectome is a new probe-like device that is inserted into the anterior chamber through the cornea. The procedure uses a small probe that opens the eye's drainage system through a tiny incision and delivers thermal energy to the trabecular meshwork, reducing resistance to outflow of aqueous humor and, as a result, lowering IOP.
Canaloplasty, a recent advancement in non-penetrating surgery, is designed to improve the aqueous circulation through the trabecular outflow process, thereby reducing IOP. Unlike traditional trabeculectomy, which creates a small hole in the eye to allow fluid to drain out, canaloplasty has been compared to an ocular version of angioplasty, in which the physician uses an extremely fine catheter to clear the drainage canal.