Republish this article
28th October 2014

Why glaucoma is a family matter

Mark’s father has glaucoma. His grandma has glaucoma. Half of his uncles and aunts have glaucoma. And he might, too. But what is it, again?

When Mark’s grandmother went to get her eyes checked, it was already too late: she was completely blind in one eye and had lost 50% of her vision in the other one. And the damage was irreversible. She had glaucoma. Because glaucoma can be hereditary, Mark’s entire family had to go to through the same test.

During those exams, his father and three of Mark’s uncles were diagnosed with the illness. But, luckily, the damage so far was minimal, and with the right treatment it wouldn’t get any worse. “My father finally understood why bright lights were so annoying to him”, Mark explains, “or how came he used to see an unusual halo around certain light spots”.

Tunnel and/or blurred vision, sensitivity to light, red eyes and inexplicable halos of light: this is what glaucoma can look like. (photo: Fotolia)

These are indeed some of the symptoms associated with glaucoma, which can include a gradual loss of peripheral vision, intense eye pain, blurred vision and reddening of the eyes. In addition, people whose relatives have glaucoma, are over forty, have diabetes or have ever had a serious eye injury are in higher risk of suffering from it than others, but anyone is susceptible to have it.

But what exactly is it?

Glaucoma is an irreversible ocular disorder characterized by a pressure-associated optic neuropathy. In other words: when the intraocular fluid can’t drain properly, pressure builds up on the eye and oppresses the optic nerve, which causes slow and permanent vision loss. The trickiest part is that, by the time most people realise they have it, it is too late: if not treated in time, it may lead to blindness. But with early detection and careful treatment, it can be managed.

Your eye is full of liquid. It is called aqueous humour. In a healthy eye, a certain amount of this liquid naturally drains, but not in an eye with glaucoma.

My family member has glaucoma. What should I do?

Just as Mark and his family did, the first thing you need to do is getting checked for glaucoma, which basically means that your eye doctor needs to measure the internal pressure of your eye. This is done by examining the eye’s reaction to a smooth blow of air in its entire surface: a painless and brief procedure. Skimming the surface of the eye, once this is numbed with some drops, is also another way of rating the eye’s internal pressure and to identify any anomaly. “It sounds a lot worse than it is”, Mark says. “It doesn’t hurt at all, and the whole appointment only takes a few minutes”.

“It doesn’t hurt at all, and the whole appointment only takes a few minutes” (photo: Fotolia)

Mark is a 25 year old from Bath, United Kingdom, and his eyes have always been ok. But he knows this might change one day. That’s why he needs to have check-ups more often than other people -once a year- and be prepared for whatever evolution his situation follows.

“It doesn’t bother me”, he says, “I know there is nothing I can do but keeping track on my internal eye pressure levels. I have to admit that every time I have to go to the doctor there is a certain fear of finding out I have developed the illness, but the key is being ready for such event. And I am only glad that, if the time comes, I will know exactly what to do to get the damage contained and not end up almost bind as it happened to my grandma”.

And then?

If you do have glaucoma, don’t panic! Good news is that your doctor has spotted it. He or she can then recommend either conventional or laser surgery to get the pressure back to normal. As Mark’s family did, most people would get conventional surgery, but people whose eye internal pressure is very high or nerve is badly damaged would choose the laser option. Laser suits more extreme cases, as it allows the fluid a faster way out of the eye.

Life after surgery

After surgery, number one priority is making sure internal eye pressure doesn’t raise again. That’s what some drops will do to protect your optic nerve. Mark’s father and other relatives use them to take good care of their condition, and they get doctor appointments often, too.