Glaucoma: The Stealthy Thief of Sight

A ringing alarm clock signaled the loss of sight for Indianapolis entertainer Jimmy Guilford. “I was lying on my back and I could not see the clock when the alarm went off. When I sat up, I could see it. When I laid back down, I still couldn’t see it,” Guilford said.

Guilford was diagnosed with glaucoma; he had already lost vision in his right eye because of the disease. “I never had a pain or anything, and I didn’t notice any change in my sight,” Guilford said. Channel 13 WTHR, an Indianapolis media outlet, did a feature video on Guilford’s story.

Glaucoma is one of the leading causes of blindness in the United States – and it’s the most common cause of blindness among African Americans. Often called the sneak thief of sight, it’s believed that millions of Americans don’t know they have this disease because often there are no warning signs.

There is no cure for glaucoma, but it can be controlled with proper management. Glaucoma can be diagnosed and treated by an eye doctor like those at the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Eye Institute of the Indiana University School of Medicine, Department of Ophthalmology.

Early treatment can often prevent loss of sight, but once sight is lost it cannot be restored. Some early warning signs of glaucoma include developing blind spots, eye pain or seeing rainbow-colored halos around lights. Individuals with those symptoms should call an eye doctor immediately.

Risk factors for glaucoma include:

  • Age
  • Being African-American or Hispanic
  • Having a family history of glaucoma
  • Having elevated eye pressure
  • Being farsighted or nearsighted
  • Having previous eye injuries
  • Having other health problems such as diabetes, low blood pressure, or migraine headaches.

As we age, most adults will experience some changes in vision, said Louis B. Cantor, M.D., Chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology and a leading glaucoma researcher. “Most people will require reading glasses around the time they turn 40.” And, said Cantor, by age 65, one in three Americans will experience some form of vision-impairing eye disease.

Cantor said glaucoma develops when pressure builds in the eye and causes damage to the optic nerve. The nerve is the main cable carrying the messages from the eye to the brain.  The damage to the optic nerve can cause blind spots to develop and those spots often go unnoticed until they increase in size and impair more of your sight. Blindness is a result if the disease is left untreated, Cantor said.

Video about the causes, symptoms, and treatment of glaucoma, an Indianapolis health issue.

Once vision loss from glaucoma is noticeable or measurable, the disease is often in advanced stages. Damage to the nerve can be prevented with medications such as eye drops, laser treatment or surgery, but it cannot be reversed and sight cannot be restored, Cantor said.

Cantor said primary open-angle glaucoma is the most common form of the disease and is caused when the fluid normally produced in the eye is blocked from flowing back out of the eye at a normal rate, causing pressure in the eye to build. Acute closed-angle glaucoma is caused when the iris, or colored part of the eye, can block the drains in the eye and increasing eye pressure.

“In some cases, there is a sudden increase in eye pressure due to the build-up of fluid,” Cantor explained. “When this happens, it is considered an emergency because nerve damage and sight loss can occur within hours. This type of glaucoma often comes with symptoms such as eye pain, seeing halos around lights, and nausea and vomiting.” Cantor said the sudden onset of those symptoms should be treated as an emergency.

The best defenses against eye diseases such as glaucoma are awareness of risk factors and regular eye exams, said Cantor, who also directs glaucoma research at Indiana University. on the downtown Indianapolis‘ busy IUPUI campus. Dilated eye exams, which allow the ophthalmologist to see the back of the eye, are particularly important for people with glaucoma or diabetes.

“Early detection is the best defense against glaucoma,” Cantor said. “Treatment can stall the progression of glaucoma, but it won’t cure it or restore lost vision.”

To see what vision with glaucoma looks like, click here.

Eugene and Marilyn Glick Eye Institute

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