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Study: Family Doctors Can Help Prevent Blindness from Glaucoma

  • Carol Pearson

Glaucoma is one of the world's leading causes of irreversible blindness.

Often undetected until it reaches an advanced stage, Glaucoma-induced blindness first robs you of your side vision, which is part of the reason it can go unnoticed for such long periods of time.

According to The World Health Organization, although 70 million people worldwide suffer from glaucoma, it is treatable if detected early, which means that those suffering from the disease can preserve their vision.

Glaucoma is actually an umbrella term for a group of diseases that affect the optic nerve, causing progressive damage. There are two main types: wide (open angle) and closed (narrow angle).

While these names are used to describe the eye's anatomy, the results are the same. Both cause too much fluid to collect within the eye. If left untreated, the eye is eventually unable to carry visual information to the brain.

Researchers are looking for better ways to detect, treat and prevent vision loss in people with glaucoma. University Of California Ophthalmologist Dr. Robert Weinreb led a study that reviewed medical literature on detecting and treating the disease.

The San Diego-based researcher describes the eye as a sink that "has a faucet and ... a drain." In open angle, he says, the drain is blocked internally; in closed angle, the drain is covered up and blocked on the outside.

Glaucoma affects certain racial and ethnic groups, and Weinreb's research indicates that people of Latin American descent are more likely to develop open angle glaucoma, as are those of black African descent. People of Asian descent are more at risk for narrow or closed angle glaucoma.

Other risk factors include age, high blood pressure and family history, but people without these factors can also develop the disease.

Treatment can include eye drops, pills or surgery. Until more comprehensive clinical techniques are developed, the goal of treatment is to preserve the patient's vision.

After reviewing medical literature, Weinreb concluded that "primary care providers could have a major role in detecting, recognizing and referring patients who are at the highest risk for developing glaucoma.”

For example, primary care physicians can ask about a patient's family history of glaucoma, along with checking their patients' optic nerves to see if referral to an eye specialist is needed.

Glaucoma can't be prevented, but when caught early, it can be treated and further damage to the optic nerve can be avoided or delayed. Dr. Weinreb's study is published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.