What is glaucoma?

Glaucoma is a general term used to describe a group of eye disorders that damage the optic nerve. It's the most common form of optic nerve damage leading to vision loss. In most cases, fluid builds up in the front part of the eye. This extra fluid puts pressure on the eye, gradually damaging the optic nerve. This pressure is known as intraocular pressure (IOP), or eye pressure.

Some people have normal eye pressure and still get glaucoma. Untreated or poorly controlled glaucoma can lead to permanent and irreversible vision loss and blindness.

What is the optic nerve?

Your optic nerve plays a crucial role in vision. It sends signals from the retina (neural tissue in the back of your eye, like the film of an old-fashioned camera) to the brain. Your brain relies on these signals to create images.

How common is glaucoma?

Glaucoma is a common age-related eye problem that affects an estimated three million Americans. Globally, it is the second leading cause of blindness after cataracts.

Who might get glaucoma?

Glaucoma can affects people of all races and genders, but the risk increases with age. African Americans and Latinos are much more likely to get glaucoma than other races, and they tend to develop the disease earlier in life. Asian and Inuit populations are also more susceptible to a specific form of glaucoma known as angle closure glaucoma.

People with diabetes are twice as likely to get glaucoma. Other risk factors include:

What are the types of glaucoma?

There are several types of glaucoma, including:

  • Open-angle: This type is the most common, affecting up to 90% of Americans who have glaucoma. It occurs when tiny deposits build up in the eye’s drainage canals, slowly clogging them. The canals appear to be open and functioning normally. But over months or years, the deposits cause fluid to build up and put pressure on the optic nerve. The disease can go unnoticed for years because most people don’t have symptoms.
  • Closed-angle: Also called angle-closure or narrow-angle glaucoma, this rare type often comes on suddenly (acute). It occurs when the angle between the iris (the colored part of the eye that controls light exposure) and cornea (clear outer part of the eye) is too narrow. As a result, the drainage canals become blocked, preventing aqueous fluid from leaving the eye and causing an acute elevation in eye pressure. Symptoms, including eye pain and headaches, can be severe and require immediate medical attention.
  • Normal-tension: As many as one in three people have optic nerve damage even when eye pressure is normal or not very high. Experts aren’t sure what causes normal-tension glaucoma, which is also called normal-pressure or low-tension glaucoma. This type is more common among Asians and Asian Americans.
  • Congenital: Some babies are born with drainage canals that don’t form properly in the womb. Your healthcare provider might notice a baby’s glaucoma symptoms at birth. Or signs may become noticeable during childhood. This condition is also known as childhood, infantile or pediatric glaucoma.

Does glaucoma affect both eyes?

Most people develop glaucoma in both eyes, although the disease initially may be worse in one eye. With open-angle glaucoma, one eye may have moderate or severe damage, while the other eye may be mildly affected. Over time, the disease damages both eyes.

People with closed-angle glaucoma in one eye have a 40% to 80% chance of developing the same type of glaucoma in the other eye within five to 10 years.

What causes glaucoma?

Glaucoma can occur without any cause, but is affected by many factors. The most important of which is the intraocular eye pressure. Your eyes produce a fluid called aqueous humor that nourishes them. This liquid flows through the pupil to the front of the eye. In a healthy eye, the fluid leaves through a drainage canal located between the iris and cornea.

With glaucoma, the drainage canals become clogged with microscopic deposits. The fluid has nowhere to go, so it builds up in the eye. This excess fluid puts pressure on the eye. Eventually, this elevated eye pressure can damage the optic nerve leading to glaucoma.

What are the symptoms of glaucoma?

Signs of open-angle glaucoma tend to come on subtlety and gradually. That makes them easy to miss. Many people with open-angle glaucoma have no noticeable symptoms early on, which makes it incredibly important to have routine eye exams to detect this disease in its earlier stages. Because glaucoma damage is irreversible, early detection and treatment is crucial to prevent blindness.

Closed-angle glaucoma has more severe symptoms that tend to come on suddenly.

With any type, you may experience:

  • Eye pain or pressure.
  • Headaches.
  • Rainbow-colored halos around lights.
  • Low vision, blurred vision, narrowed vision (tunnel vision) or blind spots.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Red eyes.

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