Health & Fitness

New glaucoma treatment signals breakthrough

Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases that cause optic nerve damage, according to the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center.

This can permanently damage vision and lead to blindness if untreated.

Glaucoma is normally associated with increased fluid pressure in the eye. There are many different subtypes, but they can all be considered to be a type of optic neuropathy.

If untreated, glaucoma can lead to permanent damage of the optic nerve and result in visual field loss. Over time, the condition can result in blindness. The Kellogg Eye Center says glaucoma is a leading cause of blindness in the world, especially in older people.

Glaucoma has been called the “silent thief of sight” because loss of vision often occurs gradually over a long period of time and symptoms occur only when the disease is advanced.

Once lost, vision cannot normally be recovered.

Commonly thought of as an older person’s disease, glaucoma strikes more than 2.2 million Americans and at least half don’t know they have it, says David Richardson of San Gabriel Eye Associates.

He estimates that one in 200 Americans under age 50 and one in 10 age 80 and older have the disease.

Richardson, an instructor of ophthalmologists, is one of only a handful of specialists in the country performing “canaloplasty,” a sight-saving breakthrough for glaucoma.

Some little-known facts about the disease:

•  African-American and Latino populations seem more at risk.

•  Head injuries from contact sports like basketball, football or soccer can increase risk, as can car accidents.

•  A diagnosis of diabetes also increases risk.

Q: Dr. Richardson, what is this new treatment called “canaloplasty”?

A: It’s a relatively new procedure, and it’s wonderful. It’s actually like a catheter in the eye inserted where there is a natural drainage duct in the white part of the eye. It’s called Schlemns canal.

Q: What happens?

A: Fluid in the eye has nowhere to go with glaucoma, so the pressure builds up and creates pressure to the optic nerve. The catheter opens the canal.

Q: This is a new treatment. What has been the standard?

A: That has been a trabeculectomy — a surgical procedure that relieves intraocular pressure by removing part of the eye’s trabecular meshwork and adjacent structures. It allows drainage from the eye and it is still used today.

Q: Are there post-operative symptoms with the trabeculectomy?

A: Even after it’s healed, there can be a blister on the surface of the eye. It can end up worsening symptoms of dry eye. It is better than nothing, but it is far from ideal.

Q: How long has the new procedure been around?

A: It was approved four years ago by the FDA, but the technical challenges are huge.

Q: What do you advise patients?

A: If you have a family history of glaucoma, you should have a complete eye exam every two years.