As with many health conditions, early detection can mean better prognoses. And our eyes are no exception! Here, an ophthalmologist in Singapore shares what to know about glaucoma and why it’s worth adding an eye doctor visit to your to-do list.
Glaucoma: The silent “thief of sight”
While breast exams, colonoscopies and other screenings are commonly highlighted, eye exams are all too often something we seem to lose sight of. And, while it’s easy to imagine that symptoms of vision loss would be obvious, in many instances, it’s such a gradual process that you won’t become aware until it’s too late.
Such is the case for glaucoma, an eye disease that damages your optic nerve, which supplies visual information to your brain. It’s usually caused by elevated fluid pressure in the eyeball, explains DR LIVIA TEO, senior consultant ophthalmologist at Nobel Eye & Vision Centre in Gleneagles Hospital.
But, because there are no symptoms for elevated eye pressure, there’s no clear indicator of a problem that’s early in the works. For this reason, glaucoma is often referred to as the “silent thief of sight”.
Different types of glaucoma
There are two main types of glaucoma: open angle glaucoma and closed angle glaucoma. Both types usually develop in both eyes. However, one eye can be more severely affected than the other, says Dr Teo.
“If left untreated, both types of glaucoma can cause progressive, irreversible damage to the optic nerve. This can result in loss of vision and eventual blindness.”
Open angle glaucoma, she says, is often painless and affects the peripheral vision first. That said, patients do not usually realise that there is a problem until the disease has advanced. By that stage, they’ve already lost most of their vision. This is called “tunnel vision”. In fact, she says that a whopping 72 percent of glaucoma sufferers are unaware of their condition at the time of diagnosis. Up to four percent of these patients are already blind in one eye by that point.
In some instances of acute onset of closed angle glaucoma, the patient might experience eye pain, headache, nausea and vomiting. The patient might also experience misty or blurred vision. If you experience these symptoms, it’s best to seek immediate medical attention from an ophthalmologist.
Prevention and early detection of glaucoma
Although there are eye drops, laser procedures and surgeries that can help control intraocular pressure, glaucoma cannot be cured. Rather, it can only managed. Therefore, early detection and treatment are the most important steps to prevent vision loss, says Dr Teo.
Increasing age is a key risk factor for glaucoma. Therefore, Dr Teo recommends that adults see an eye doctor annually or semiannually from the age of 40. In Singapore alone, the condition affects three percent of the population over 50 years old, and almost 10 percent of those over 70. It is actually the most common cause of permanent blindness.
Glaucoma is also hereditary. So it’s particularly important for those with a family history of the condition to visit an eye doctor regularly.
Other risk factors of glaucoma include:
- short-sightedness (myopia);
- long-sightedness (hyperopia);
- long-term steroid use for other medical conditions such as asthma; and
- obstructive sleep apnoea.
Additionally, closed angle glaucoma is more common in females than in males. It’s also more prevalent in those of Chinese ethnicity, says Dr Teo.
The bottom line
Getting your eyes checked regularly by an ophthalmologist is paramount to preventing glaucoma from stealing your sight. “Do not lose your precious eyesight to the ‘thief of sight,’” says Dr Teo. “Glaucoma screening is simple and effective, and early detection can save your sight!”
This article first appeared in the July 2022 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase the latest issue or subscribe, so you never miss a copy!