When you get an eye exam, doctors check for subtle changes indicative of a growing disease.
Patients who skip their screening find themselves unable to reverse the damage to their sight.
Glaucoma is the second to largest cause of blindness.
Deborah Zelinsky is an optometrist and founder Mind Eye Institute.
“Glaucoma is one of the most devastating conditions,” she said. “And it’s irreversible damage.”
It’s the diagnosis Charlie Williams received when he was in his early 40s.
“I woke up and I couldn’t see like I usually see,” he said. “And I ran to the doctor. I panicked.”
Knowing he had a family history of glaucoma Williams still ignored the signs.
And the disease is sneaky.
“There’s no pain receptors in the retina so it does sneak up on you,” Zelinsky said.
The eyes, as we age, get clogged.
“In the eyes, because it’s on the inside of the eyes, if there is too much fluid produced or the drain gets clogged, then the fluid has nowhere to go and it builds up pressure like blowing up a balloon,” Zelinsky said. “In glaucoma, there is fluid produced in the front of the eye and there is kind of jelly in the back of the eye. When the fluid is produced and not draining properly, or if the fluid production is too much then there is more and more fluid in the front of the eye and it pushes. The optic nerve is in the back of the eye and if there is too much pushing the optic nerve gets damaged.”
“I have no vision in my right eye,” Williams said. “Left eye, I have no peripheral. At this stage that I’m at now, there is not much the doctors can do.”
To screen for it, doctors first perform a pressure test. Then there are more high-tech options.
“We have special instruments that shine infrared light through the retina, and we can see various layers and you can see damage that way, Zelinsky said. “Visual field tests are very common as well as an OCT which looks at layers of the retina. It’s easier to catch now. In fact, some of the studies show there is a decrease in how many people are actually having damage and going blind. But the people who are not getting exams, those are the ones still going blind.”
The recommendation is for regular eye exams beginning at age 40, even if you don’t wear glasses or contacts. Optometrists look for early signs of fluid buildup.
“There are treatments if you catch it in time, but once the damage is done you can’t undo the damage,” Zelinsky said. “If you catch the pressures early you can use eye drops that act like Draino and keep the drain open.”
Williams doesn’t have that option now but the former chef is still pursuing his passion.
“I got this impairment but I can do some stuff. I still cook, I still cook today,” he said. “I build my confidence back up. I have a little struggle getting around. I have a wonderful wife that is there for me … I got great support. This is just part of life.”
Eye exams should be conducted annually or even more frequently for those in high-risk groups including African Americans, Latinos and Northern Europeans.