By Johnny Jackson
Glaucoma is called "the sneak thief of sight" because it often has no symptoms until there is irreversible vision loss.
"We see many, many cases," said Humberto Fallas, an optometrist with Fallas Family Vision in McDonough. "Most of the time it doesn't give you any symptoms until very late, and the only way to detect it is to get your yearly eye exam."
Today, the World Glaucoma Association and the World Glaucoma Patient Association will sponsor the second annual observance of World Glaucoma Day. The observance is an attempt to raise awareness of the silent disease, affecting some 3 million Americans and 65 million people worldwide.
Glaucoma is an eye disease which causes damage to the optic nerve and can lead to a loss of peripheral vision and eventually to complete blindness, if not treated. While there is no cure for glaucoma, experts say there is sight-saving treatment for those diagnosed early in the progression of the disease.
People recognize the disease but often confuse it with other eye diseases like cataracts, Fallas said.
The disease is prevalent in some minority populations, like Hispanics and African Americans, he said.
"It can be hereditary," said Crystal Gardner, an optometrist with VisionWorks in McDonough. "It mostly affects people over 50, but can occur in younger patients."
Glaucoma can occur in anyone at any age, however, there are specific risk factors. Elevated eye pressure is a significant risk factor for glaucoma, experts say. When fluid within the eyeball builds up it can erode at the eye's optic nerve, which connects it to the brain. When that happens, sight can be compromised.
All types of glaucoma tend to run in families which may explain why certain races are more often affected by various forms of the disease, said Kathleen Honaker, the executive director of the American Health Assistance Foundation.
The foundation, whose goal is to help find a cure for the disease, has raised $90 million in support of research into illnesses like glaucoma.
"Finding a cure for glaucoma," Honaker said, "would end the number one cause of blindness worldwide and be a huge contribution to the world of medical treatments and cures."
According to Gardner, individuals cannot see the symptoms of glaucoma themselves as the disease is often a gradually progressive one, which goes unnoticed by most.
"Glaucoma is a-symptomatic until the later stages," Gardner said. "There's no way of knowing it's there unless you come in for an exam."
To find the symptoms for glaucoma, optometrists like Gardner will dilate or enlarge the eye pupils to better view the inside of the eye. Doctors measure eye pressure, test the peripheral visual field, conduct an eye chart exam, measure the patient's corneal thickness, and take photographic images of the patient's optic nerve.
Most patients found to have glaucoma can be treated, Gardner said. Treatment is normally by medication given through eye drops. Sometimes surgeries are necessary for patients in the later stages of the disease.
For those reasons, added Honaker, "it is of vital importance that those at risk be screened regularly by their eye doctor."