Glaucoma is a family of disorders which if left untreated can cause progressive and irreversible damage to the optic nerve. The optic nerve is essentially the cable wire transferring visual information from the eye to the brain. The damage to the visual system tends to be in a characteristic pattern with a corresponding loss in visual field. It is the commonest cause of irreversible blindness worldwide and by 2020, there will be an estimated 80 million people suffering with glaucoma.
Glaucoma can be divided based on whether or not the drainage angle within the eye is open or closed as well as if there is a secondary cause for the glaucoma or not.
This is the commonest type of glaucoma. In most cases, the patient is asymptomatic and it is incidentally identified, often at a routine eye test. It can be associated with high eye pressure or normal eye pressure. This can be primary (without another identifiable cause) or secondary (due to other conditions such as pseudoexfoliation or pigment dispersion syndrome).
This occurs due to the mechanical obstruction of the drainage angle and is associated with suddenly high eye pressure. Again, the cause for this can be primary (anatomically narrow angle) or secondary (for example diabetes, and previous inflammation). The eye pressure can suddenly rise and cause an attack of acute angle closure.
Primary open angle glaucoma is caused by raised eye pressure. If the eye pressure is higher than the expected average (10-24mmHg), it can over time compress the optic nerve, causing cell death which in time will lead to loss of visual field and developing glaucoma. In patients where the drainage angle is normal, the reason for the raised eye pressure is believed to be an imbalance in rate of the aqueous fluid production and drainage. This means that too much fluid is made and so there is a build-up of excess fluid in the eye which subsequently leads to the eye pressure to rise. Why some people have raised eye pressure remains unknown. It is thought to be multifactorial. The factors include positive family history (some genetic markers have been identified), age (more common in older patients), race (more common in Afro-Caribbeans), gender (more common in men) and systemic disease (for example high blood pressure).
Secondary open angle glaucoma is when certain conditions cause a rise in eye pressure with the angle remaining open, including:
Primary closed angle glaucoma is caused by narrow drainage angle. In some eyes, the reason for the raised eye pressure is that the drainage angle in the eye is narrow, which restricts the aqueous outflow and in turn causes the eye pressure to be high, leading eventually to glaucoma. In primary angle closure, the drainage angle would have been narrow from birth and this is usually only incidentally identified at a routine optician appointment. Having narrow angles if left untreated can cause an acute rise in the eye pressure and lead to what is known as acute angle closure glaucoma. Here, there is a sudden rise in the eye pressure which causes pain, redness, blurry vision and severe headaches and nausea. During an attack, the eye becomes red and the pupil (the black circle in the eye) can look distorted.
Secondary closed angle glaucoma can occur for the following reasons:
For the most part, glaucoma is asymptomatic as the build up of the eye pressure is so gradual. The visual field loss tends to affect the peripheral vision at the start and again this can go unnoticed for a long period of time. In angle closure however, because the pressure rise is very rapid, the patient does experience symptoms of red, painful eye, with blurred vision and halos around light. The pain can be very severe and cause headaches as well as vomiting. This is an ophthalmic emergency and would require immediate management.
Currently there is no option to reverse any sustained damage to the optic nerve from glaucoma. The nerve is an extension of the brain and so the tissue does not regenerate once it is lost. The recommendation is to detect glaucoma as early as possible and halt any disease progression. It is important to attend regular eye check ups so your optometrist can flag any glaucoma in its early stages and you can begin treatment. You should also be aware of your family’s eye health history as glaucoma can be hereditary. Your optometrist will normally ask if anyone in your family has glaucoma during check ups, so give them as much information as possible.
The other important step if you have been diagnosed with glaucoma is to attend at least annual appointments to monitor your eye pressure. Our yearly glaucoma care package costs £950 and covers a year of unlimited glaucoma consultations and diagnostics. Contact us today to find out more.
There are two main methods used to measured eye pressure:
As glaucoma is a progressive disease, normally, a series of examinations are required before a definitive diagnosis is made.
At the initial assessment, you will have a number of investigations, some of which will need to be repeated at every visit. A thorough medical history will be taken, and then you will undergo a slit lamp examination, first looking at the front segment of the eye, checking the intraocular pressure, assessing the drainage angle and looking for any secondary causes for glaucoma. If it is safe to do so, you will have dilating drops instilled to the eyes and the back (posterior segment) of the eye will be examined. You will also undergo imaging of the optic nerve to objectively assess the nerve fibre layer and keep an accurate record of the optic nerve status.
Finally, you may be asked to perform a visual field test that will show if there is damage to the vision.
The results of the examination and the glaucoma tests will then all be explained in detail and if the diagnosis of glaucoma is made, we can then proceed to talk about the various treatment options.
Although we know high eye pressure is not the only cause of glaucoma, at present our only way to halt any further glaucoma damage is by controlling the pressure. All the different treatment modalities in principle work in 2 ways: decrease production of aqueous fluid or increase its outflow in order to lower the eye pressure.
There are a number of different options for treatment, including:
Please read our glaucoma treatment page for more detail on the different treatments and surgeries available for treating glaucoma.
Find out the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about glaucoma, from our expert surgeon Ms Sally Ameen.
It can be. Research suggests that genetic and hereditary factors can increase not only the risk of developing glaucoma but the severity of the disease. Studies have shown those with a first-degree relative (parent or sibling) with glaucoma have an almost 10-fold risk of developing early onset glaucoma. There are a number of genetic mutations that have been identified, but it is felt there is still more to learn about the genetic makeup of glaucoma and how it is passed on.
In most cases, glaucoma does not cause any signs or symptoms in the early stages of the disease. This is why it is known as the thief of sight. For the commonest type (primary open angle glaucoma), the eye pressure rise is so gradual that the patient remains asymptomatic and it is detected incidentally. As the disease progresses, the patient can develop a visual field defect, which is like an enlarged blind spot, where part of the vision is blurry or completely missing.
In a subgroup of glaucoma, the angle closure type, there is a sudden rise in the eye pressure, which can cause pain in the eye, redness, blurring of the vision as well as systemic signs like headache, nausea and vomiting.
Any damage to the vision from glaucoma whatever its subtype cannot be reversed. The optic nerve is an extension of the brain and it does not re-generate once lost. The treatments provided are to halt the disease progression as opposed to reverse it.
There is a subtype of glaucoma that can be “cured”: for patients where the cause of glaucoma is a narrow drainage angle, the condition can be indefinitely reversed following surgery. But again, if the nerve has already been damaged from glaucoma, even changing the drainage angle will not reverse this.
The simple answer is yes. The DVLA have strict guidelines to follow and someone who is diagnosed with glaucoma undergoes annual assessment of their vision. The assessment includes visual acuity (sharpness) as well as a field of vision assessment that is performed with both eyes open and with the use of any correction to the vision needed. If the disease is too advanced at the time of diagnosis or continues to progress, then the person may be deemed unfit to drive. This decision is made by the DVLA and not your ophthalmologist based on their assessments that are performed at independent centres.
Glaucoma affects “field of vision” and not “acuity” (until much later on in the disease). This means parts of the vision, usually the outer parts, are blurred or completely missing. This continues progressing and can leave the patient with only a central island of vision and if the disease is not halted, the vision can be lost completely and glaucoma will cause irreversible blindness.
There are a number of different groups of eye drops that can be used to control eye pressure. One of them (prostaglandin analogues) have been shown to be most effective if taken at night time. That would be the reason your ophthalmologist would recommend taking the medication at night time – to increase its effectiveness.
No, eye floaters usually occur to the ageing breakdown of the vitreous- the jelly cavity inside the eye. This is a natural ageing process that happens for most people and is not linked to glaucoma.
Yes, a specific group of drops (Beta blockers) can cause a number of systemic side effects. These include reducing both the heart rate and blood pressure. They can also cause headaches as well as sleep deprivation. One way to minimise the systemic effects of the eye drops is to reduce their absorption into the circulation. This can be done by pressing on the side of the nose next to the inner eye corner to block the tear duct immediately after the drop is installed. Then, the pressure can be removed after 20 seconds.