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Glaucoma is the name for a group of conditions that can lead to total vision loss or blindness. There is no cure for glaucoma, but there are ways to slow or stop it from getting worse.

Learn more about glaucoma, its causes and treatment options and how Banner Health can help. 

What is glaucoma?

Glaucoma is an eye disease that damages the optic nerve of the eye. This nerve sends the images you see to your brain. Glaucoma usually affects both eyes, but it may affect one eye more than the other.

Your eyes contain clear fluid that helps maintain their health and shape. This fluid is made constantly and drains out the back of the eye through an area called the drainage angle. This helps keep your eye pressure at a normal level.

When this fluid doesn’t drain properly, however, the pressure inside the eye increases. As the pressure rises, it can damage your optic nerve and cause vision problems. 

Types of glaucoma

Glaucoma is a common age-related eye problem and is the second most common cause of vision loss or blindness in the U.S. 

The four main types of glaucoma are:

Open-angle glaucoma (also called chronic glaucoma)

Open-angle glaucoma is the most common type of glaucoma, affecting up to 90% of Americans with glaucoma. It happens when the drainage angle is open but does not work correctly, causing pressure to build up.

Nicknamed “the silent thief of sight,” this glaucoma develops slowly, is painless and causes no vision changes at first. Many people with this type of glaucoma don’t know they need care until damage to the optic nerve has already happened.

Closed-angle glaucoma (also called angle-closure or narrow-angle glaucoma)

Closed-angle glaucoma is a rare type that requires urgent medical treatment.

It happens when the drainage angle in the eye narrows or is suddenly blocked, and fluid can’t flow out of the eye. This blockage causes a quick rise in eye pressure, which can cause sudden pain and vision loss.

Normal-tension glaucoma (also called low-tension glaucoma)

People with normal-tension glaucoma have eye pressure within a normal range but still show signs of glaucoma. 

The exact cause of this type of glaucoma is not fully understood, but certain medical conditions may increase your risk. These include autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, migraines, Raynaud’s phenomenon and high blood pressure (hypertension). 

Childhood glaucoma (also called congenital, pediatric or juvenile glaucoma)

Some children are born with glaucoma. It is caused when the eye does not develop normally. Childhood glaucoma may also happen because of an eye disorder, eye injury or other disease.

Am I at risk for glaucoma?

Although glaucoma can affect anyone, some people have a higher risk of developing it. This includes people who:

  • Are over the age of 40
  • Have a family history of glaucoma
  • Are of Black, Hispanic, Native American or Asian heritage
  • Have certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, migraines or high blood pressure
  • Have had an eye injury or certain eye problems, such as nearsightedness (myopia)
  • Take corticosteroid medication like eye drops

What are the symptoms of glaucoma?

In its early stages, you may not notice any symptoms. However, with any type of glaucoma, you may experience:

  • Eye pain or pressure
  • Headaches, nausea, and possibly vomiting
  • Blurred vision
  • Tunnel vision
  • Seeing rainbows or halo-like glows around lights
  • Red eyes

How is glaucoma detected?

Left untreated, glaucoma can cause permanent vision loss. The good news is that you can slow or stop it from getting worse with regular eye exams. Check-ups by an eye care specialist (an ophthalmologist or optometrist) can help catch glaucoma and many other eye problems. 

During the exam, they will: 

  • Measure your eye pressure (tonometry) 
  • Look at your optic nerve for damage (ophthalmoscopy)
  • Check your central and peripheral (side) vision (perimetry)
  • Examine your eye’s drainage angle (gonioscopy)
  • Measure the thickness of your cornea (pachymetry)

What treatment is available for glaucoma?

Although there is no cure for glaucoma, the main goal of treatment is to reduce pressure in the eye to stop damage to the optic nerve. If glaucoma is found early enough, proper care and treatment can slow or stop further vision loss, but it cannot restore lost vision.

Treatment can vary from person to person but may include the following:

  • Eye drops: Used every day, prescription eye drops can treat glaucoma. Some decrease fluids or increase drainage to improve eye pressure. 
  • Laser therapy: Your eye care specialist can use a laser to help improve fluid drainage in your eye. The two main types of laser surgery are trabeculoplasty (for open-angle glaucoma) and iridotomy (for closed-angle glaucoma).
  • Conventional surgery: If laser surgery and eye drops do not help, your provider may recommend traditional surgery. There are two main types:
    • Trabeculectomy: This surgery creates a tiny opening in the eye to allow fluid to drain, reducing pressure in the eye and preventing damage to the optic nerve.
    • Tube shunt surgery: A small tube (shunt) is placed in the eye to drain fluid out of the eye and lower pressure. 
  • Minimally invasive glaucoma surgery (MIGS): This new procedure reduces the risks related to traditional glaucoma surgery. MIGS uses microscopic implants, precision lasers and tiny cuts in the eye, which can lead to more rapid healing and even some vision recovery.

The best treatment for glaucoma depends on your specific needs and the stage of your disease. Your health care provider will work with you to develop the right treatment plan. 

What is the outlook for people who have glaucoma?

Many people with glaucoma can maintain good vision with early detection and proper care. Regular check-ups with your eye care specialist play an important role in keeping your eyes healthy. It’s important to stay on top of your eye care to give yourself the best chance of maintaining good vision. 

Here to help

At Banner Health, your vision is important to us. From routine eye exams to surgical treatments, we diagnose and treat glaucoma and other eye-related problems like cataracts and diabetic retinopathy