Glaucoma: What you need to know about 'the sneak thief of sight'

(BPT) - “Will I go blind?” It’s a frightening thought that most people have when they are first told they have glaucoma.

“Patients are almost always concerned that they are going to lose their vision,” said Dr. Andrew Iwach, executive director of the Glaucoma Center of San Francisco. “The good news for the majority of patients is that we can maintain their vision with treatment.”

The sneak thief of sight

Glaucoma, an eye disease that damages the optic nerve, is the leading cause of irreversible blindness. It affects more than three million people in the United States. The National Eye Institute projects this number will rise by 58% over the next decade to 4.2 million people.

The most common form of the disease is open-angle glaucoma, which affects 90% of patients and occurs when the eye’s drainage canals become clogged over time, according to the Glaucoma Research Foundation.

Open-angle glaucoma has been called "the sneak thief of sight" because it strikes without symptoms. Experts estimate that half of the patients who have glaucoma don’t know it. As much as 40% of vision can be lost without a person noticing. And once that eyesight is lost, it’s permanently gone.

“I didn’t have any symptoms prior to diagnosis,” said Richie Kahn, 34, who was diagnosed in March 2019. “By then, glaucoma had already stolen part of my vision. I was surprised to learn that my brain was actually compensating for my vision loss by filling in the blanks.”

Hope through treatment

Since glaucoma has no symptoms in its early stages and progresses slowly over many years, eye doctors emphasize the importance of regular eye exams to detect the disease before there’s a significant loss of vision.

The target for glaucoma therapy is to lower intraocular pressure (IOP). High IOP causes damage to the optic nerve, which produces vision loss in the disease. Approaches to lowering IOP include a wide range of eye drop medications, laser treatments that are performed in a doctor’s office and several types of incisional surgery.

Dr. Trinh Green has lived with glaucoma for 24 years after being diagnosed at age 21. Like Kahn, she had no symptoms of the disease, so news of her diagnosis came as a total surprise. Her advice to others is to remain calm and stay optimistic throughout their care and treatment.

“I think it’s very important for people to stay calm after learning they have glaucoma,” said Trinh. “There are many more treatments available in the last few years. I also owe so much to Dr. Iwach. He’s a very calming presence. Whenever there was a setback and the disease progressed, he would tell me, ‘I have a few more tricks up my sleeve.’”

The power of knowledge

In addition to early detection and treatment, Iwach emphasized the importance of patients learning everything they can about glaucoma.

“Getting the facts, including risk factors and treatment options, can empower patients to improve their outcomes and reduce their fears,” he said.

He encourages his patients to read "Understanding and Living with Glaucoma,” published by the Glaucoma Research Foundation. The free booklet offers a comprehensive introduction to glaucoma and guidance about how patients can work with their doctors to manage the disease.

Glaucoma patients like Kahn found power in knowledge in their fight against glaucoma.

“Everyone’s journey will be different and you have to be willing to advocate for yourself,” Kahn said. “I learned a lot from the Glaucoma Research Foundation. Staying informed about my particular situation allows me to be an active member of my own care team, doing my part to preserve my vision.”

A free copy of “Understanding and Living with Glaucoma” can be downloaded or ordered at www.glaucoma.org/booklet.

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