St. Mark's Hospital - March 11, 2019

You've probably heard of the eye condition called glaucoma. Maybe an older relative has it, or maybe you've been recently diagnosed.

While it's one of the most common cause of blindness, glaucoma has no early warning signs. In fact, more than 3 million Americans have glaucoma, but only half of them know it. That's why it's sometimes called "the sneak thief of sight."

Dr. Jason Rupp, a glaucoma specialist at Clarus Vision Clinic in Salt Lake City, Utah, answers some frequent questions about this common but serious condition.

What Is Glaucoma?

Glaucoma is a disease that affects the optic nerve, which is the cable that connects the eye to the brain. When someone has glaucoma, nerve cells that transmit visual information to the brain become sick and die. This, in turn, can lead to vision loss. The process is painless, and the vision loss is imperceptible early on.

Am I at Risk of Developing Glaucoma?

The following items increase a person’s risk for developing glaucoma:

  • Family history of glaucoma
  • Elevated eye pressure (which your doctor checks during a routine eye exam)
  • African-American, Hispanic or Asian ethnicity
  • Long-term steroid use, such as an inhaler for asthma
  • Past eye injury

Age is also a risk factor, and glaucoma becomes more common as people age. However, people at any age can develop the disease.

What Are the Warning Signs of Glaucoma?

There are typically no early warning signs of glaucoma, which is why it’s so important to get regular eye exams. Some people experience pain or vision loss, but this typically happen only in very severe glaucoma once irreversible damage has already happened.

How Can I Prevent Glaucoma?

There isn’t really anything you can do to prevent glaucoma from happening, but you can reduce the risk of losing vision from glaucoma. If you’re over 40, get an eye exam from an ophthalmologist who will check for risk factors and signs of glaucoma.

If you have any concerning findings, your doctor may recommend further testing to determine if you have glaucoma and if you need treatment. Often the recommendation will be repeated exams and testing to detect any changes that would signal glaucoma.

How Is Glaucoma Treated?

There are 3 broad categories of treatment for glaucoma: eye drops, in-office laser procedures, and surgery. All treatments are intended to lower the pressure inside the eye.

Early stages of glaucoma are typically treated with drops or a laser procedure, and both can be quite effective. If these are not enough to get the eye pressure to a safe level, surgery can be performed to further reduce the pressure in the eye.

The best way to reduce your risk of vision loss from glaucoma is to make sure that you see an ophthalmologist for routine eye exams.