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AFBAmerican Foundation®
for the Blind

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Visual Impairment and Glaucoma

Glaucoma is a serious eye condition that involves an elevation in pressure inside the eye. Increased pressure results from a buildup of excess fluid in the eye. Glaucoma is a dangerous eye condition because it frequently progresses without obvious symptoms. This is why it is frequently referred to as "the sneak thief of sight."

Types of Glaucoma

There are several types of glaucoma, for example, congenital, primary, secondary, and normal tension glaucoma. Congenital glaucoma appears in young people; secondary glaucoma is the result of injury or trauma. There are two types of primary glaucoma most frequently associated with aging: acute or closed angle glaucoma, and chronic or open angle glaucoma. The Reference Section at the end of this Fact Sheet provides resources for learning more about each of the types of glaucoma.

Regardless of the type, glaucoma can impair vision by creating pressure that damages the optic nerve, The "cable" of nerve fibers that transmits messages about what we see from the eye to the brain.

It is important to recall the structure of the eye and how it works to understand the dangers posed by glaucoma. Glaucoma can cause damage when the aqueous humor, a fluid that inflates the front of the eye and circulates in a chamber called the anterior chamber, enters the eye but cannot drain properly from the eye. Elevated pressure inside the eye, in turn, can cause damage to the optic nerve or the blood vessels in the eye that nourish the optic nerve. The Human Eye, Its Functions, and Visual Impairment explains how the eye works. When glaucoma begins to affect a person's vision, the first problems are with peripheral vision, or what can be seen at the sides of the visual field, rather than in the center. If glaucoma progresses, it can destroy all peripheral vision, then impair central vision, and lead to total blindness. Treatments for glaucoma are aimed at bringing down the pressure in the eye to a level that is low enough to prevent harm to the optic nerve. Once the optic nerve is damaged from glaucoma, lowering the pressure in the eye only prevents further damage to the nerve. Damage already done to the optic nerve cannot be reversed.

Diagnosing Glaucoma

When a person receives a diagnosis of glaucoma, it means a diagnosis of a life-long condition. However, early detection of glaucoma, appropriate and ongoing treatment, and the availability of specialized low vision and vision rehabilitation services if vision should become impaired, means that people who have glaucoma can live productive and satisfying lives.

A pressure check for glaucoma should be a routine part of every eye examination at least by the age of 35. A visual field test can also detect glaucoma by indicating the loss of peripheral vision.

How Common Is Glaucoma?

According to the Glaucoma Research Foundation glaucoma affects more than 3 million Americans. It is also reported that glaucoma is the third leading cause of legal blindness in Caucasians, and the leading cause of blindness in African Americans. Although anyone can get glaucoma, some people are at higher risk. Those at risk include:

  • People over the age of 60.

  • African Americans over the age of 40.

  • People with a family history of glaucoma.

Retaining Independence

People who have experienced vision loss from glaucoma can retain their independence, productivity, and quality of life by learning to use specialized devices and techniques to carry out their daily activities. These may include using special lenses that can help those who have remaining sight make the best use of available vision, and using specialized techniques that enable people to manage home and work responsibilities, travel using mass transportation, and carry out a host of other activities.

Resources

American Academy of Ophthalmology
655 Beach Street, P.O. Box 7424
San Francisco, CA 94109-7424
Telephone: 415-561-8500
Fax: 415-561-8533
Web site: www.eyenet.org

American Foundation for the Blind
National Aging Program
11 Penn Plaza, Suite 300
New York, NY 10001
Telephone: 800-232-5463; 212-502-7634
Fax: 212-502-7773
E-mail:
afbinfo@afb.net
Web site: www.afb.org

American Optometric Association
243 Lindbergh Boulevard
St. Louis, MO 63141
Telephone: Toll free 888-396-EYES (3937) or 314-991-4100
Fax: 314-991-4101
Web site: www.aoanet.org

Council of Citizens with Low Vision Intern
c/o American Council of the Blind
1155 15th Street N.W., Suite 720
Washington, DC 20005
Telephone: 800-733-2258
Fax: 317-251-6588

The Glaucoma Foundation
33 Maiden Lane, 7th Floor
New York, NY 10038
Telephone: 800-452-8266 or 212-504-1901
Fax: 212-504-1933
E-mail: glaucomafdn@mindspring.com
Web site: www.glaucomafoundation.org/info

Glaucoma Research Foundation
251 Post Street, Suite 600
San Francisco, CA 94108
Telephone: 800-826-6693 or 415-986-3162
Fax: 415-986-3763
E-mail: answers@glaucoma.org
Web site: www.glaucoma.org

Lighthouse International
111 E. 59th Street
New York, NY 10022
Telephone: 800-334-5497
Fax: 212-821-9727 or 9728
E-mail: info@lighthouse.org
Web site: www.lighthouse.org

National Eye Institute
National Eye Health Education Program
2020 Vision Place
Bethesda, MD 20892-3655
Telephone: 301-496-5248
Fax: 301-402-1065
E-mail: 2020@nei.nih.gov
Web site: www.nei.nih.gov

National Federation of the Blind
1800 Johnson Street
Baltimore, MD 21230
Telephone: 410-659-9314
Fax: 410-685-5653
E-mail: nfb@access.digex.net
Web site: www.nfb.org

Prevent Blindness America
500 East Remington Road
Schaumburg, IL 60173
Telephone: 800-221-3004 or 847-843-2020
Fax: 847-843-8458
E-mail: preventblindness@compuserve.com
Web site: www.preventblindness.org

For AFB Press titles of related interest, see the AFB Bookstore.

Additional Publications

Marks, E. (1997). Coping with Glaucoma. Garden City Park, NY: Avery Publishing Group.

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