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Optometrist examining female patient in ophthalmology clinic.

Optometrist examining female patient in ophthalmology clinic.
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Glaucoma

4-minute read

What is glaucoma?

Glaucoma is a common eye problem that causes vision loss and, if untreated, can cause blindness.

Usually the deterioration is very gradual and not noticeable, so regular eye examinations are recommended for people from middle age.

Once detected, glaucoma can be treated to prevent or delay further vision damage.

What are the types of glaucoma?

There are 4 types of glaucoma:

  • open angle — where this is no obvious problem, but the fluid pressure builds up
  • angle closure — where the fluid stops circulating and the fluid pressure builds up quickly, causing pain in the eye and fairly sudden loss of vision
  • normal pressure — where the eye pressure hasn't changed, but the optic nerve is still damaged
  • secondary — where glaucoma arises after inflammation, injury, or surgery to the eye

What are the symptoms of glaucoma?

Most people with glaucoma have few to no symptoms until their eyesight is damaged.

People with angle closure glaucoma can get blurred vision, pain and a red eye, and might see haloes around bright lights.

They can also feel nauseous, with headaches and vomiting. This is an emergency and you should seek treatment straight away so you don’t lose vision.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the eye and vision problems Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes glaucoma?

Doctors don’t clearly understand why glaucoma happens.

Glaucoma refers to a group of conditions that damage the optic nerve that links the eye to the brain.

The optic nerve carries signals from the back of your eye to the brain and allows you to see. Nerve damage often has something to do with the fluid in the eye.

Sometimes, the pressure of the fluid inside the eye rises, and the fluid presses hard on the optic nerve, damaging it. But glaucoma can also occur even when the fluid pressure in the eye is normal.

Who is at risk of glaucoma?

You are at higher risk of developing glaucoma if you:

How is glaucoma diagnosed?

An optometrist or ophthalmologist (specialist eye doctor) can detect it early on if you have regular eye examinations every 2 to 3 years.

They will look at the nerve fibres and the structure of the eye drainage network, test the field of vision and measure the eye pressure. This examination will take 20 to 45 minutes.

If you are of African or Asian descent, these regular examinations should start at age 40. Otherwise, you should start them at age 50.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How is glaucoma treated?

If you have angle-closure glaucoma, treatment will need to be provided quickly to reduce the pressure. This may be done with eye drops or intravenous medication. You may also need surgery.

Nerve cells damaged by glaucoma can’t be repaired. Treatment is designed to prevent or slow further damage, mainly by reducing the pressure in the eye. This involves:

  • eye drops or medicine
  • laser surgery or other surgery to open or create a new drainage channel

Glaucoma surgery is usually a day or outpatient procedure. You might have a local anaesthetic (such as eye drops) or a general anaesthetic. Your surgeon will explain to you the preferred type of surgery and anaesthetic for your condition.

Can glaucoma be prevented?

Unfortunately, while it can be managed, glaucoma can’t be prevented.

Resources and support

Sources:

Glaucoma Australia (Glaucoma: The thief of sight), PLoS ONE (Clinical management outcomes of childhood glaucoma suspects), Scientific Reports (Fluctuation in systolic blood pressure is a major systemic risk factor for development of primary open-angle glaucoma), Lions Eye Institute (Glaucoma), Optometry Australia (Glaucoma), RANZCO (Surgical treatment of glaucoma online patient advisory), PLoS ONE (Intraocular Pressure-Lowering Effects of Commonly Used Fixed-Combination Drugs with Timolol: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis)

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: December 2019


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