Glaucoma has been called the “sneak thief of sight” because in some cases the condition shows no symptoms until a patient begins to lose sight.
Inci Dersu, M.D., a new glaucoma specialist at the Harvey and Bernice Jones Eye Institute at the
“Glaucoma is preventable if those at risk for developing it understand and get early attention from an eye care professional,” said Dersu, assistant professor in the Department of Ophthalmology of the UAMS College of Medicine.
October is glaucoma awareness month, which Dersu said makes it the perfect time to emphasize the importance of regular eye examinations. As the baby boomer generation ages, she said, she expects to see more cases of glaucoma.
Glaucoma is actually a group of diseases – not just one condition – that can damage the eye’s optic nerve and result in vision loss and blindness. The optic nerve is a bundle of more than 1 million nerve fibers that connects the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye, the retina, to the brain. A healthy optic nerve is necessary for good vision.
When the optic nerve is damaged – often due to a buildup of fluid in the eye, which causes pressure on the nerve – glaucoma can result in one or both eyes.
“Anyone can develop glaucoma, but there are some groups at an especially higher risk,” said Dersu, who has completed both clinical and research fellowships devoted to glaucoma. “African-Americans over age 40 and anyone with a family history of glaucoma have a much greater chance of developing it – meaning screenings for those groups very critical.”
Anyone older than 60, particularly Hispanics, also are at greater risk of glaucoma, Dersu said. The higher risk could be attributable to anatomical differences in the cornea and nerve or the natural aging of the eye, she said.
Other potential factors in the development of glaucoma are diabetes and hypertension (high blood pressure). Because of the relationships between obesity and diabetes along with smoking and high blood pressure, individuals can reduce the risk of developing glaucoma by adopting healthy habits”, Dersu said.
At first, the most common form of glaucoma, known as open-angle glaucoma shows no symptoms. There is no pain and vision is normal. It’s been said that an estimated half of those who have glaucoma are unaware of disease..
Peripheral vision loss is often the first warning sign, as people begin to miss objects to the side or have trouble seeing out of the corner of their eye. Untreated, the vision loss will increase to complete blindness.
Dersu recommends annual glaucoma screenings for anyone older than 40, with increased frequency as they age. A screening will consist of a test of distance and peripheral vision, an examination of the eye structure and a measurement of pressure in the eye.
While eye pressure is believed a factor in glaucoma development, Dersu cautioned that increased eye pressure doesn’t mean glaucoma will follow. Some people can tolerate higher eye pressure than others, she said, so the key is how much pressure the optic nerve can withstand before it is damaged.
That’s another reason why comprehensive screenings are important.
Glaucoma can be treated with medications that reduce the amount of eye fluid produced or decrease eye pressure, as well as surgery. Laser or conventional surgical procedures can be used to help fluid drain from the eye.
“We cannot reverse vision loss but we can preserve vision,” Dersu said. “There are many treatments available, so a comprehensive screening can suggest the best treatment.”
In most cases, a combination of treatments will be used.
Research is continuing to discover the exact cause of glaucoma, Dersu said. At the same time, researchers are working to develop more precise tools for detecting glaucoma in early stages.
Dersu joined the medical staff at the Jones Eye Institute in August, along with neuro-ophthalmologist Joseph G. Chacko, M.D., and retina specialist Bradley Hughes, M.D. The expanded eye institute medical staff of 21 specialists includes experts in the fields of cornea and external disease, glaucoma, neuro-ophthalmology, oculoplastics, pediatric ophthalmology, retina, ocular pathology and comprehensive ophthalmology.
Construction is underway for a five-floor addition to the eye institute, scheduled to be completed in early 2006. The expansion, which will double the size of the facility, will be called the
Opened in 1994, the Jones Eye Institute is one of only 20 free-standing academic eye centers in the nation.
To find out more about glaucoma or schedule an appointment at the Jones Eye Institute, call 501-686-5822. The eye institute is online at http://www.uams.edu/jei/.