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Glaucoma, Symptoms & Risk Factors at Alabama Eye & Cataract Center at UAB Highlands in Birmingham, AL

By Marc Michelson, M.D.

About Glaucoma
The eye doctors at Alabama Eye & Cataract Center believe that understanding glaucoma and its risk factors are important to help you maintain your eye health and vision. Glaucoma is a term that is used to describe a broad range of eye problems that can damage the optic nerve and cause loss of vision. The pressure inside the eye, called Intraocular Pressure (IOP), generally falls within a range that is considered “normal”. Many patients believe that glaucoma is simply due to a high pressure within the eye. While a high intraocular pressure can be one cause of glaucoma, and in fact is the most common cause of glaucoma, a high IOP may not be the only cause of glaucoma. There are a number of possible causes of glaucoma.

Regardless of the cause, the various types of glaucoma share a common factor-if not diagnosed early, treated properly and controlled, it will result in permanent vision loss and potentially blindness. 

Recent data suggests that more than 2.8 million people over the age of 40 have the most common type of glaucoma called primary open-angle glaucoma. This reflects a 22 percent increase in the time period between 2000 and 2012. In addition, it is estimated that between 3 and 6 million people in the United States have higher than normal Intraocular Pressure (IOP), without clinical signs of damage to the optic nerve. High Intraocular Pressure is one of the diagnostic signs that may indicate the presence of glaucoma.

Symptoms of Glaucoma
Most serious eye problems usually produce some symptoms that make patients uncomfortable or disturb their vision. Unfortunately, the most common type of glaucoma-chronic open angle glaucoma-can begin without any symptoms or obvious loss of vision. It is insidious in onset and, if not diagnosed and treated early in its course will lead to progressive, permanent, and unnoticed vision loss. This is why it is essential to diagnose and treat glaucoma as early in its course as possible through regular eye examinations.

Glaucoma Risk Factors
Everyone is at risk for Glaucoma. However, depending on your general health, eye health and other family history considerations, there are a number of factors that that may influence your likelihood of developing glaucoma. These “Glaucoma Risk Factors” are important to understand in assessing your own personal risk for developing Glaucoma. Glaucoma risk factors include the following:

  • High Intraocular Pressure
    A key warning sign of Glaucoma is having a higher than normal Intraocular Pressure (IOP). Anyone with an elevated Intraocular Pressure (IOP) is considered to be at risk for developing glaucoma.
  • Age
    There is a direct relationship between age and the likelihood of developing glaucoma. The chances of developing glaucoma increase considerably after the age of 40. In fact you are six times more likely to get glaucoma if you are over 60 years of age-even if you have no other family or medical history that is significant-and your risk is greater if you have any family history of glaucoma or other systemic or eye disease that compromises your circulation such as diabetes.
  • Race
    Race plays a significant role in the likelihood of developing glaucoma. African-Americans have certain genetic factors that cause a higher likelihood of developing glaucoma. In fact they have a six to eight fold increased risk for glaucoma. Glaucoma is the leading cause of blindness in African-Americans. Asians appear to have higher risk for developing Narrow Angle Glaucoma. In addition, Hispanics over the age of 60 seem to be at increased risk as well.
  • Myopia
    Certain patients who are severely nearsighted have a higher risk of developing glaucoma. This is believed to be due to extremely nearsighted eyes having anatomical features that can increase their risk of glaucoma.
  • Hypertension or High Blood Pressure
    It is absolutely critical that patients who have hypertension or high blood pressure take their prescribed medication on a consistent basis. Hypertension has been variably found to be a risk factor for the development of glaucoma. Paradoxically, patients who take medication for high blood pressure may be at greater risk for Glaucoma as a result of the medication lowering the blood pressure and thus decreasing circulation within the optic nerve.
  • Diabetes
    Diabetes can cause general problems with circulation throughout the body-including the eye. As a result of the poor circulation, patients with diabetes are considered to be at greater risk for developing Glaucoma due to these general circulation problems.
  • Family History
    Any family history of glaucoma is considered a very significant risk factor. If any members of your family have been diagnosed with glaucoma, it increases the likelihood that you will develop glaucoma by 4-9 times over the general population. This is particularly true for siblings of glaucoma patients who have a 5-fold increase in risk for developing glaucoma.
  • Other Glaucoma Risk Factors
    In addition to these factors, if you have had trauma to your eyes (i.e. a sports injury or car accident) or if you have been treated for Asthma for long periods of time with steroid inhalers or have a corneal thickness less than 0.5mm, you too may have an increased risk of glaucoma. Further, women who enter menopause at an early age-perhaps between 45-50-are at greater risk of glaucoma and anyone who suffers from sleep apnea is also at high risk of glaucoma.

Glaucoma is a very complex eye disease, and not simply an elevated Intraocular Pressure (IOP). Nonetheless, when detected early it can be successfully treated.

If you or someone you know would like to learn more about glaucoma, glaucoma symptoms or glaucoma risk factors or needs an appointment for a glaucoma eye exam, please call Alabama Eye & Cataract Center at 205-930-0930 to schedule an appointment.