Glaucoma is group of eye disorders that have few symptoms in their early stages, but eventually leads to damage of the optic nerve (the bundle of nerve fibers that carries information from the eye to the brain), which can then lead to vision loss or complete blindness.
Glaucoma is a leading cause of irreversible blindness in the United States and the world.
- More than three million Americans are living with glaucoma, 2.7 million of whom—aged 40 and older—are affected by its most common form, open-angle glaucoma.
- Blindness or low vision affects 3.3 million Americans age 40 and over.
Glaucoma costs the U.S. economy $2.86 billion every year in direct costs and productivity losses.
Glaucoma is a leading cause of blindness among African Americans and Hispanics in the U.S.
- Open-angle glaucoma is three to four times more common in African Americans than in non-Hispanic Whites.
- Glaucoma is fifteen times more likely to cause blindness in African Americans than in Caucasians.
- The prevalence of glaucoma rises rapidly in Hispanics over age 65.
High eye pressure does not cause glaucoma; it is only a risk factor.
Optic nerve damage usually occurs in the presence of high eye (intraocular) pressure. However, glaucoma can be diagnosed with normal or even lower than normal eye pressure.
There are two main forms of glaucoma: open-angle (most common) and angle-closure.
- Open-angle is the most common form and affects approximately 95% of individuals.
- Open-angle glaucoma initially has no symptoms. At some point, side (peripheral) vision is lost and without treatment, an individual can become totally blind.
- In the United States, the major type of glaucoma, called open-angle glaucoma, strikes African Americans and Hispanics at higher rates than other ethnic groups.
Angle-closure glaucoma comes in two forms: acute or chronic.
- Acute angle-closure glaucoma occurs when the normal flow of aqueous humor between the iris and the lens is suddenly blocked. Symptoms may include severe pain, nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, and a rainbow halo appearing around lights. Acute angle-closure glaucoma is a medical emergency that must be treated immediately or blindness can result in one or two days.
- Chronic angle-closure glaucoma progresses slowly and can produce damage without symptoms, similar to open-angle glaucoma.
Regular eye exams are needed for a proper diagnosis and to prevent damage to the optic nerve.
- Eye doctors use several tests to detect glaucoma including: visual acuity test, visual field test, dilated eye exam, tonometry, pachymetry, ophthalmoscopy, gonioscopy, and optic nerve imaging.
- Individuals at high risk for glaucoma should have a dilated pupil eye examination, including a visual field test, at least every one to two years years or as directed by a doctor.
- Some studies have shown that perhaps half of people living with glaucoma aren't even aware they have the disease.
There are also several other forms of glaucoma, including normal-tension, congenital, juvenile, and secondary.
Secondary glaucoma can be open-angle or closed-angle and results from another medical condition in the eye or body. Examples of secondary glaucoma include pseudoexfoliation syndrome, neovascular, pigmentary, and iridocorneal endothelial syndrome (ICE syndrome).
Strong risk factors for open-angle glaucoma include:
- High eye pressure
- Family history of glaucoma
- Age 40 and older for African Americans
- Age 60 and older for the general population, especially Mexican Americans
- Thin cornea
- Suspicious optic nerve appearance with increased cupping (size of cup, the space at the center of optic nerve, is larger than normal)
Potential risk factors for open-angle glaucoma include:
- High myopia (very severe nearsightedness)
- Eye surgery or injury
- High blood pressure
- Use of corticosteroids (for example, eye drops, pills, inhalers, and creams)
- Prescription eye drops could cut African Americans' risk of getting glaucoma in half.
Currently, there is no cure for glaucoma; however, through early diagnosis and treatment, the disease can be controlled before vision loss or blindness occurs.
- Treatments for open-angle glaucoma include: medications, usually eye drops, to help eye fluid drain more effectively or lessen fluid production; laser surgery; and conventional surgery.
- New treatment research is focused on lowering pressure inside the eye, finding medications to protect and preserve the optic nerve from the damage that causes vision loss, and the role of genetic factors.
- Approximately 5.6 million prescriptions were filled for glaucoma patients in 2001.
- The average direct cost of glaucoma treatment ranges from $623 per year for patients with early-stage glaucoma to $2,511 per year for end stage patient
For sources of the facts and figures, see Sources for Glaucoma page.
This content was last updated on: June 27, 2019
The information provided is a public service of the BrightFocus Foundation and is not intended to constitute medical advice. It should not in any way substitute for the advice of a qualified healthcare professional. Please consult your physician for personalized medical advice; all medications and supplements should only be taken under medical supervision. BrightFocus Foundation does not endorse any medical product or therapy.