When was the last time you had a thorough eye exam? I don’t mean the test that you take to get your driver’s license renewed or the “cover one eye and read the chart” test that you get when you visit your primary care physician for your annual physical. Most people believe that if they can see well, then they don’t need to have an eye exam. Nothing could be further from the truth.
While the cornea (the outer surface of the front of the eye) is extremely sensitive to an eyelash, or even a speck of dust, and can cause great discomfort alerting you to a problem, it is important to note that the inside of the eye does not sense pain at all and responds only to light. That means that any damage inside the eye may never cause pain and your only way of knowing that a problem may exist occurs if the damage affects your vision in some way. By the time your vision is affected, permanent and irreversible damage may already be present.
What Is Glaucoma?
Glaucoma is one group of eye diseases that damage the optic nerve (the nerve that connects the eye to the brain) which can eventually lead to permanent blindness if left untreated. It is one of the leading causes of preventable blindness around the world. This means that people who go blind from glaucoma, lose vision simply because they do not receive a diagnosis and appropriate care early enough during the course of the disease.
Glaucoma is most commonly associated with elevated eye pressure, however, there are forms of the disease that occur even when eye pressure is normal or low. In rare cases, a sudden spike in eye pressure can cause eye pain, nausea and/or vision changes that can alert someone to seek medical attention, but the vast majority of cases are slowly progressive and may cause absolutely no symptoms for years (even decades) as the disease progresses. Usually no pain, discomfort or vision changes occur until the disease reaches very advanced stages. This is why glaucoma has been called the silent thief of vision. It operates in stealth mode.
How Are My Eyes Tested?
A timely diagnosis of glaucoma requires a medical evaluation by an eye doctor (an optometrist or an ophthalmologist), which includes a visual assessment of the optic nerve. This is achieved by your doctor using manual and/or automated instruments to view the internal structures of each eye. The disease is characterized by changes to the optic nerve over time. Your optic nerve may appear to be normal on ten successive exams, however, a practitioner who has access to all of your records may notice a progressive change in the appearance of the nerve that could indicate the presence of the disease even if all other tests appear normal. This is why annual eye exams are so important.
Who Is Affected With Glaucoma?
Glaucoma is more prevalent among African American and Hispanic populations and occurs with greater frequency in adults over 40, however the disease can affect people of all ethnicities and ages, including newborns. The best way to reduce your risk of vision loss from undiagnosed glaucoma is to have annual routine eye exams performed by your eye doctor in order to assess your risk. If you are diagnosed with glaucoma before vision loss occurs, treatment can preserve your vision for the rest of your life. Treatment may include eye drops, medications or in some cases, surgery (laser or conventional).
What Should I Know About Glaucoma?
Because glaucoma usually causes no symptoms whatsoever, many patients question whether anything is truly wrong when they are first diagnosed. Many individuals delay further testing or treatment and subject themselves to unnecessary additional risk of vision loss. If you question your diagnosis, seek out a second opinion, but do not ignore the recommendations or skip treatment simply because your vision ‘seems’ fine and you feel no pain. Your vision 10 or 20 years from now may well depend on how you choose to handle your vision care today. If it has been more than one year since your last eye exam, or if you’ve never had an eye exam, I encourage you to schedule an appointment today with your local eye doctor.
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Guest Contributor: Del Edwards, OD is a proud graduate of Oakwood University in Huntsville, AL and The Ohio State University College of Optometry in Columbus, OH. She has been practicing for over 2 decades and dedicates much of her time to helping others see clearly (both literally and figuratively). Connect with her on Facebook.