Suleman Ali, a fifty-year old Hattiesburg businessman, thought his eyes were healthy. So he was surprised about three years ago when a routine eye exam revealed a serious problem.
“During my annual exam at Hattiesburg Eye Clinic, Dr. Stoney Williamson found that my eye pressure was too high,” says Ali. “He diagnosed me with glaucoma and put me on medication to bring the pressure down.”
Ali is one of more than 3 million people in the United States with glaucoma, a serious eye condition that is a leading cause of blindness in people over 40. But thanks to his exam Ali isn’t among the estimated one third of those who don’t yet know they have the disease. That’s why the doctors and staff of Hattiesburg Eye Clinic are joining with other providers across the country to promote Glaucoma Awareness Month in January.
“Glaucoma is a silent but serious eye condition – a person can have it without any outward symptoms,” says Dr. Adam Quinn, a glaucoma specialist with Hattiesburg Eye Clinic. “Fortunately, we can identify it through a routine eye exam. If caught early, we may be able to manage it and slow or stop the vision loss.”
Glaucoma is caused by abnormally high intraocular fluid pressure in the eye. The body is constantly renewing this fluid that aids eye function and health as any excess amount normally drains from the eye. If the fluid doesn’t drain properly, however, it can build up and increase pressure, which over time could permanently damage the optic nerve.
In the most common form of glaucoma, a person may not notice the higher pressure and may not be aware they have a problem until they notice issues with their vision later in life. But an eye doctor can measure intraocular pressure in a patient of any age as part of a regular eye exam.
Dr. Quinn recommends anyone over the age of 35 undergo an annual exam to identify glaucoma or other serious eye problems. And people in certain high-risk categories should begin eye exams even sooner.
“While anyone can develop glaucoma, certain people are at higher risk: those with diabetes, extreme near-sightedness, a family history of glaucoma, or those from African descent. We recommend anyone that fits one of these categories to begin regular eye exams in childhood or adolescence,” says Dr. Quinn.
While glaucoma can’t be cured, there are ways to lower intraocular pressure and reduce the risk of blindness. Once diagnosed, most patients begin with eye drop medications as Ali did. They may also need to visit their eye doctor more frequently to monitor their pressure.
While medication is often effective in reducing eye pressure, drops may not work for everyone or lose effect over time. This happened with Ali last year – his pressure had increased, and his doctors recommended more invasive treatment to bring it under control. This last summer Ali underwent a Selective Laser Trabeculoplasty (SLT) performed by Dr. Todd Williamson.
“SLT uses short pulses of low laser energy to stimulate specific cells in the eye’s drainage system,” says Dr. Williamson. “This stimulation can help to improve drainage function, lower pressure and ultimately help slow or stop the risk of disease progression.”
People diagnosed with glaucoma will need to manage their disease for the rest of their lives. But there are several advanced techniques like SLT that physicians and specialists like Dr. Williamson and Dr. Quinn can employ to reduce the long-term damage caused by glaucoma.
It’s all in vain, though, until a person knows they have glaucoma – and the earlier the better. Ali says he might still not know if he hadn’t undergone his eye exam.
“I believe an eye checkup is a must – if I hadn’t had mine, I might still not know I have glaucoma,” says Ali. “I believe everyone should go every year. It could save your sight.”