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Glaucoma: A Silent Attack On The Eyes

Applanation tonometry test for eye pressure.

The World Health Organization lists glaucoma as the second leading cause of blindness in the world. It’s estimated more than two million Americans have the disease, but only half know it. No one’s certain exactly what causes the damage to the optic nerve that results in glaucoma, but in this edition of KERA's consumer health series, Vital Signs, Dr. Roger Velasquez, an opthalmologist with Parkland Hospital System in Dallas says there are certain risk factors to watch out for.

From  Dr. Velasquez’ interview…

Risk factors: There are many studies on glaucoma, and there’s many risk factors that we as opthalmologists look for when we see patients in our chair. One is aging. The other is African American race – a really strong risk factor, especially if you have family history of glaucoma, then you yourself are at risk for developing glaucoma.

Why does it affect African Americans at such a high rate? We just don’t know.  A lot of genetic studies are being done to try to link the association and see if there’s a genetic factor. But as (with) many things in medicine, there’s also demographic, socio-economic things we just don’t really understand and those can influence the development of glaucoma.

Glaucoma’s hard for the average person to recognize or detect: The most common form, primary open angle glaucoma, accounts for 90 percent of all the glaucomas that we see. And when the patients start coming to me, the patients usually already have the symptoms and they’re usually in-stage glaucoma patients – meaning they have severe damage to their optic nerve. Now these patients would complain of blurring to their vision or dimming of their vision. And when you test their peripheral vision, you notice that most of their peripheral vision is gone. So, these patients don’t notice anything until it’s very, very severe.

How you treat glaucoma: The main treatment that we do is to lower the eye pressure and, traditionally, the way we do it is through topicals, eye drops, or we have lasers as well. But the topical formulations that we have work in different ways inside the eye. One way is to lower the production of fluid inside the eye. And we have drops that can facilitate the outflow or getting the fluid outside of the eye.

Can glaucoma be cured? There’s no known cure for the most common form of glaucoma. (In) a majority of cases, we can slow the progression or even stop it in its tracks. There are secondary cases we can do treatments for, but those are rare.

Best way to prevent glaucoma: Most beneficial thing is you have risk factors for glaucoma – say, if you’re over 40 and have risk factors – is go see an ophthalmologist or a glaucoma specialist to have a full exam to know how at risk you are or if you’re at risk at all.

For more information:

Facts & Statistics about Glaucoma 

Types, Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.