This is because the human eye is incredibly complex, but the trouble is that just one thing going wrong can seriously compromise a person’s vision health. One example that might not seem obvious to most people is the pressure of the fluid inside the eye. It needs to stay within a very narrow range, and if it rises too much, that can damage the optic nerve and cause permanent vision loss. That’s what happens in most glaucoma cases.
The insides of our eyes are filled with transparent fluid. The fluid in the front chambers is aqueous humor and the larger chamber in the back of the eye is vitreous humor. A healthy eye is able to maintain the pressure of these fluids because the old fluid drains out through the pupil at the same rate that new fluid is produced. If the drainage cycle is interrupted by glaucoma, then the pressure of the fluid will rise to the point where it can cause damage if not treated.
There are different types of glaucoma, but we’ll focus on the two main ones: open-angle and angle-closure glaucoma. Angle-closure glaucoma happens very suddenly when the drainage canals in the eye are physically blocked by the iris. This form of glaucoma tends to be accompanied by multiple symptoms, such as nausea, headaches, extremely blurry vision, eye pain, and halos around lights. These symptoms are serious warning signs that it’s time to get straight to an eye doctor.
About 2.7 million people per year will experience open-angle glaucoma, which accounts for 90% of glaucoma cases. This form is much more gradual. The eye’s drainage canals become clogged a little over time, slowing down effective draining. It can happen so slowly that the patient might not notice it at all until the later stages. This is one reason regular comprehensive eye exams are so crucial for good eye health. The earlier open-angle glaucoma is caught, the earlier we can begin treatment and prevent further damage.
We’re all at risk of developing glaucoma to some extent, but a few factors make it much more likely. People of Asian descent are at greater risk of angle-closure glaucoma, while Hispanic and Black people (and the elderly) are more at risk of the open-angle form.
Heredity is one of the biggest risk factors of glaucoma after age. Studies estimate that the majority of glaucoma cases are familial; someone with a sibling who has glaucoma is ten times more likely to develop it than someone who doesn’t. Steroid use and eye injury are also risk factors.
There is currently no way to reverse existing damage to the optic nerve from glaucoma. With improvements in medical science, that could change in the future, but modern treatments can halt the progress of the disease, and the earlier it is caught, the better. Learn about your personal risk factors and keep up with regular eye exams to protect your eyesight!