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Understanding Glaucoma

January is Glaucoma Awareness Month. Glaucoma is a leading cause of blindness in the United States. This month is dedicated to providing education about what glaucoma is, who is at risk, and the importance of routine comprehensive eye exams.

What is glaucoma?

Glaucoma is a general term that we use to describe a group of eye conditions that damage the optic nerve. 

Aqueous humor fluid flows through our eyes and delivers oxygen to and removes waste products from the cornea. When this fluid is overproduced and does not drain properly, it builds up and places pressure on the back of your eye, specifically the optic nerve. This abnormally high pressure causes damage to the optic nerve, resulting in glaucoma.

Types of Glaucoma

There are many different types of glaucoma.  The four main types include open-angle glaucoma, angle-closure (also known as closed-angle) glaucoma, normal-tension glaucoma, and infant and child (congenital) glaucoma.

Open-angle glaucoma accounts for 90% of all glaucoma cases. This type of glaucoma differs from others as it is slow to develop due to the slow blockage of drainage canals. Its symptoms are often unnoticeable because they develop over time.

Angle-closure glaucoma, on the other hand, is less common. It is caused by a sudden block of the drainage canals, which leads to a rapid increase in pressure. Noticeable symptoms such as severe headache, eye pain, nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, halos around lights, and eye redness will occur. These symptoms require immediate medical attention. 

You can learn more about other types of glaucoma at

Who is at risk?

Everyone is at risk for developing glaucoma – infants, senior citizens, and everyone in between. However, the older you get, the higher your risk. Your risk is also dependent on your race –

African Americans over the age of 40 are at an increased risk for developing glaucoma. African Americans are 15 times more likely to be visually impaired from glaucoma than Caucasians, and open-angle glaucoma accounts for 19% of all blindness among African Americans. Studies suggest that people of African descent have thinner corneas and larger optic nerves than those of European descent, both of which are known risk factors for glaucoma. 

Hispanic individuals are also at an increased risk of developing glaucoma due to thin corneas and prevalence of hypertension and diabetes, which both affect blood flow to the optic nerve. Each race has their own unique set of risks. You can learn more about those here.

Other risk factors for developing glaucoma include – 

  • A family history of glaucoma
  • Certain medical conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease
  • Physical trauma to the eye
  • Prolonged corticosteroid use

Importance of Comprehensive Eye Exams

Because glaucoma often goes undetected, routine comprehensive eye exams are crucial to diagnosing the disease before vision loss occurs. Regular eye exams can detect glaucoma early, which can allow for prompt treatment. If you are at a higher risk for glaucoma, your eye doctor may also incorporate supplemental testing into your routine exam to check for changes in pressure, angle anatomy, nerve fiber thickness and tissue loss.

If you have questions about your risk for glaucoma or are interested in discussing this topic further, schedule an appointment with your eye doctor today.