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UK & Global [1]

  • Glaucoma of some type is found in about 2% of the population over the age of 40. It can also affect children and young adults, although much less frequently
  • It is estimated that more than 500,000 people suffer from glaucoma in England and Wales alone, with more than 70 million people affected across the world

Global [2]

  • Global causes of blindness as a proportion of total blindness in 2002: Glaucoma 12.3%

What is glaucoma?

Glaucoma is the name for a group of eye conditions in which the optic nerve is damaged at the point where it leaves the eye. This nerve carries information from the light sensitive layer in your eye, the retina, to the brain where it is perceived as a picture.

Your eye needs a certain amount of pressure to keep the eyeball in shape so that it can work properly. In some people, the damage is caused by raised eye pressure. Others may have an eye pressure within normal limits but damage occurs because there is a weakness in the optic nerve. In most cases both factors are involved but to a varying extent.

Eye pressure is largely independent of blood pressure.

A layer of cells behind the iris (the coloured part of the eye) produces a watery fluid, called aqueous. The fluid passes through a hole in the centre of the iris (called the pupil) to leave the eye through tiny drainage channels. These are in the angle between the front of the eye (the cornea) and the iris and return the fluid to the blood stream. Normally the fluid produced is balanced by the fluid draining out, but if it cannot escape, or too much is produced, then your eye pressure will rise. (The aqueous fluid has nothing to do with tears).

If the optic nerve comes under too much pressure then it can be injured. How much damage there is will depend on how much pressure there is and how long it has lasted, and whether there is a poor blood supply or other weakness of the optic nerve. A really high pressure will damage the optic nerve immediately. A lower level of pressure can cause damage more slowly, and then you would gradually lose your sight if it is not treated.

There are four main types:

Chronic glaucoma - The most common is chronic glaucoma (chronic = slow), primary open angle glaucoma (POAG) in which the aqueous fluid can get to the drainage channels (open angle) but they slowly become blocked over many years. The eye pressure rises very slowly and there is no pain to show there is a problem, but the field of vision gradually becomes impaired.

Acute glaucoma - Acute glaucoma (acute = sudden) is much less common in western countries. This happens when there is a sudden and more complete blockage to the flow of aqueous fluid to the eye. This is because a narrow "angle" closes to prevent fluid ever getting to the drainage channels. This can be quite painful and will cause permanent damage to your sight if not treated promptly.

Secondary and developmental glaucoma - There are two other main types of glaucoma. When a rise in eye pressure is caused by another eye condition this is called secondary glaucoma. There is also a rare but potentially serious condition in babies called developmental or congenital glaucoma which is caused by malformation in the eye.

Chronic glaucoma

There are several factors which increase the risk of chronic glaucoma:

Age - Chronic glaucoma becomes much more common with increasing age. It is uncommon below the age of 40 but affects one per cent of people over this age and five per cent over 65.

Race - People of African-Caribbean origin have about four times the risk of POAG as whites.

Family - If you have a close relative who has chronic glaucoma then you should have eye tests at intervals. You should advise other members of your family to do the same. This is especially important if you are aged over 40 when tests should be done every two years.

Short sight - People with a high degree of short sight are more prone to chronic glaucoma. Diabetes is believed to increase the risk of developing this condition.

The danger with chronic glaucoma is that your eye may seem perfectly normal. There is no pain and your eyesight will seem to be unchanged, but your vision is being damaged. Some people do seek advice because they notice that their sight is less good in one eye than the other.

The early loss in the field of vision is usually in the shape of an arc a little above and/or below the centre when looking "straight ahead". This blank area, if the glaucoma is untreated, spreads both outwards and inwards. The centre of the field is last affected so that eventually it becomes like looking through a long tube, so-called "tunnel vision". In time even this sight would be lost.

Acute glaucoma

In acute glaucoma the pressure in the eye rises rapidly. This is because the periphery of the iris and the front of the eye (cornea) come into contact so that aqueous fluid is not able to reach the tiny drainage channels in the angle between them. This is sometimes called closed angle glaucoma.

The sudden increase in eye pressure can be very painful. The affected eye becomes red, the sight deteriorates and may even black out. There may also be nausea and vomiting. In the early stages you may see misty rainbow coloured rings around white lights.

Acute glaucoma may not always be severe. Sometimes people have a series of mild attacks, often in the evening. Vision may seem "misty" with coloured rings seen around white lights and there may be some discomfort in the eye.

Further information


The information contained in this section was collected from the following sources:

[1] World Health Organisation (2004) Magnitude and causes of visual impairment. [accessed 28/11/12].


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