Glaucoma occurs about five times more often in African Americans and blindness from glaucoma is about six times more common. In addition to this higher frequency, glaucoma often occurs about 10 years earlier in African Americans than in other ethnic populations.
What is glaucoma?
Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases causing optic nerve damage. The optic nerve carries images from the retina to the brain so we can see. In glaucoma, eye pressure plays a role in damaging the delicate nerve fibers of the optic nerve. When a significant number of nerve fibers are damaged, blind spots develop in the field of vision.
Once nerve damage and visual loss occur, it is permanent. Most people don’t notice these blind areas until much of the optic nerve damage has already occurred. If the entire nerve is destroyed, blindness results.
Glaucoma is a leading cause of blindness in the world, especially in older people. Early detection and treatment by your ophthalmologist are the keys to preventing optic nerve damage and vision loss from glaucoma.
Research shows that African Americans are genetically more at risk for glaucoma, making early detection and treatment all the more important. Because of this, African Americans should get a thorough check for glaucoma every one to two years after age 35.
Although treatment varies, the overall goal is to prevent further damage and sight loss. One way that eye doctors seek to meek this goal is to aim for a target eye pressure. Each patient, regardless of race, should continue to be evaluated on the individual state of his or her disease, with a target pressure and treatment plan unique to each patient.
In general, glaucoma cannot be cured, but it can be controlled. Eye drops, pills, laser procedures, and surgical operations are used to prevent or slow further damage from occurring. Because glaucoma can worsen without your being aware of it, your treatment will likely need to be changed over time to achiever a lower “target eye pressure.”
Glaucoma is often treated with eye drops taken regularly several times a day, sometimes in combination with pills. These medications will alter the circulation of eye fluid and lower eye pressure, either by decreasing the production of fluid within the eye, or by increasing the flow leading the drainage angle. You should notify your ophthalmologist immediately if you think you may be experiencing side-effects.
What are the warning signs of glaucoma?
- Unusual trouble adjusting to dark rooms
- Difficulty focusing on objects
- Unusual sensitivity to light or glare
- Change in color of iris
- Red-rimmed, encrusted or swollen lids
- Double vision
- Dark spot at the center of viewing
- Lines appear distorted or wavy
- Excess tearing or “watery eyes”
- Dry eyes with itching or burning
- Seeing spots, ghost-like images
African Americans in any of these risk groups have an even greater risk of developing glaucoma:
- Over age 40
- Extreme nearsightedness
- Prolonged steroid use