Dr Sheila

Glaucoma is an eye disease that causes progressive irreversible damage of the optic nerve and loss of vision field leading to blindness.

Anybody is at risk of this disease which is the leading cause of irreversible blindness worldwide with over 20,000 cases reported every year.

With the exception of babies born with congenital glaucoma, there is usually no warning, or obvious symptoms of the disease and this has led to glaucoma being described as the ‘sneak thief of sight’.

A baby suffering from glaucoma at birth usually has bulging and swollen eyes. Approximately one in10,000 babies have glaucoma and parents noticing symptoms should have a check carried out by an ophthalmologist.

Early detection and appropriate therapy of glaucoma can significantly improve a child’s future life and vision. Treatment involves careful evaluation under general anaesthesia where the eye’s pressure is measured and treatment by surgery can be carried out, if need be, at the same time. Doing this reduces subjecting the child to multiple sessions of general anaesthesia.

Although anybody is at risk of getting glaucoma, there are certain groups of people who are at a higher risk of contracting the disease. These include those with a history of glaucoma in the family, adults over 35 years of age, being of the African race, being short sighted and those with diabetes.

For those at risk, the only way of detecting and treating glaucoma early is by going for regular eye screening by an eye specialist. For families where there is glaucoma, all members should seek regular eye checkups from an ophthalmologist.

When checking whether one has the ailment, the doctor measures the eye’s pressure and examines the optic nerve. If necessary a visual field test will be performed.

The main goal of treatment is to reduce the eye’s pressure to a safe level and prevent further loss of vision. This can be done by using pressure lowering eye drops, lasers or a variety of surgical procedures. Once glaucoma is diagnosed and treatment started, follow-up with an ophthalmologist is a life-long affair.

One of the signs that glaucoma is worsening is the appearance of “blind spots”. This can be realised by a patient when they are not able to see stairs clearly as they walk down stairs, or bump into people as they are not able to see them.

In some cases, a driver fails to notice vehicles on either side of his or her car which indicates an advanced case of glaucoma. Since the optic nerve is an extension of the brain, treatment by surgery is not available but extensive research is being carried out to develop new treatments for glaucoma. Meanwhile, controlling the eye’s pressure remains the only way of slowing progressive blindness caused by glaucoma.

The suffering caused by glaucoma highlights the importance of seeing an ophthalmologist in addition to regular eye screening for early detection of the condition and management.

—The writer is a Consultant Ophthalmologist and Glaucoma Specialist at Aga Khan University Hospital.