Glaucoma is a major cause of vision loss in the U.S. Today, it affects about three million Americans, but according to the National Eye Institute, that number could more than double by 2050. And according to the World Health Organization, it's the second leading cause of blindness in the world.
Glaucoma is known as the "silent thief of sight," because in the most common form, there are typically no early symptoms as the disease sneaks up on its victims, robbing them of side vision first and then, over time, zeroing in until it's like looking through a narrow tunnel, and finally, taking away vision altogether.
The optic nerve acts like a data cable with over a million wires and is responsible for carrying images from the eye to the brain. When the nerve cells, or "wires" in the cable are damaged, the flow of visual information is disrupted. Unlike a TV, which might be fixed with a new cable, there is no way to reverse damage to the optic nerve.
In the most common form of glaucoma, called primary open angle glaucoma, nerve damage results from increased pressure inside the eye. This pressure happens when the fluid that circulates in the eye drains too slowly.
The best way to protect your sight from glaucoma is to get a comprehensive eye exam. There is no cure—yet. But, with early detection, medication or surgery can slow or even stop further vision loss. The treatment depends on the type of glaucoma, among other things.
Since joining the Moran Eye Center in 1996, Norm A. Zabriskie, MD, has treated tens of thousands of glaucoma patients. He has seen the treatment of glaucoma progress from a time when the benefits of lowering eye pressure were still being debated, to the present—when that treatment is now standard procedure for a disease that he says, "continues to be chronic and relentless."
Zabriskie describes his patient care philosophy as trying to "bring the magic every day—to offer my patients the best information, skills, and knowledge that I can." And in terms of making treatment decisions with patients, "I always ask myself, if I were making this decision for me, what would I do? It's an ongoing process, fighting a disease that never gives up. Honestly, I live and die with how my patients are doing. When things are going well, either because of surgery or treatment, it's fantastic. By the same token, if you have patients who are not doing well, it can be devastating. Dealing with that is the hardest part."
Learn More About Glaucoma
Anyone can get glaucoma, but African Americans over age 40, everyone over age 60, especially Mexican Americans and people with a family history of glaucoma are at higher risk. Learn more and watch an animation of how open angle glaucoma progresses and affects vision.