NEI photo simulating what a person with glaucoma sees: outer edges of vision are dark
A simulation of how a person with glaucoma might see

Are you experiencing problems with your peripheral or side vision? Do you have to turn your head to see what’s to your immediate right or left? Do you have blurred vision, nausea, and headaches? Do you see “halos” around bright lights? Do you have a family history of blindness or low vision? It is important for you to have a comprehensive eye exam to ensure you do not have a disease called glaucoma.

What Is Glaucoma?

Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases that can lead to blindness by damaging the optic nerve. In a healthy eye, fluid called the aqueous humor is continuously produced and drained appropriately to maintain healthy eye pressure. However, in some cases, the production of aqueous is too high, or the drainage system is blocked, causing pressure to build within the eye. Over time, this increased pressure can damage the optic nerve.

The optic nerve transmits information from the eye to the brain. For example, you can think of the eye as a camera that obtains information from the outside world and the brain as a computer that processes that information. In this example, the optic nerve is like a cable connecting the eye (or the camera) to the brain (or the computer), allowing information to be processed.

With periods of elevated pressure in the eye, damage first occurs in the outskirts of the optic nerve, resulting in peripheral (or side) vision loss. The effect can be like looking through a tube or into a narrow tunnel, making walking difficult without bumping into objects off to the side, near the head, or at the foot level. As the disease progresses and the optic nerve damage continues, the field of vision constricts until complete vision is lost. This is why glaucoma is often called the “sneak thief of sight,” as the symptoms or early warning signs of glaucoma are very subtle.

Glaucoma can happen in 1 eye or both eyes. 

A living room viewed through a constricted visual field.
Source: Making Life More Livable. Used with permission.
A living room viewed through a constricted visual field.
Source: Making Life More Livable. Used with permission.

This is a representation of peripheral vision loss or a constricted visual field.

Glaucoma Can Be Treated, Not Cured

Glaucoma can be treated, but it is not curable. The damage that has happened to the optic nerve from glaucoma is irreversible. However, lowering the pressure in the eye can help prevent further damage to the optic nerve and further peripheral vision loss.

Early detection through a comprehensive eye exam, appropriate and ongoing treatment, and the availability of specialized low vision and vision rehabilitation services can help people with glaucoma live productive and satisfying lives.

Facts About Glaucoma

Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases that can lead to blindness by damaging the optic nerve. The eye continuously produces an aqueous fluid that must drain from the eye to maintain healthy eye pressure.

  • Glaucoma affects more than 3 million people living in the United States.
  • Glaucoma is a leading cause of blindness in African Americans, who should begin glaucoma tests as early as age 35.
  • Glaucoma has many causes, and elevated eye pressure is a factor in most. Pressure builds up in the eye due to problems with the drainage of aqueous, a fluid produced in the eye.
  • Glaucoma can cause irreversible damage to the optic nerve if left undetected and untreated. The optic nerve transmits information from the eye to the brain for processing.
  • Glaucoma results in a loss of peripheral or side vision initially, which affects your ability to move about safely. Over time, glaucoma can damage your central vision as well.
  • Glaucoma can also affect reading because losing the visual field can reduce the number of words you can see simultaneously.
  • Glaucoma is particularly dangerous to your vision because there are usually no noticeable symptoms initially. A comprehensive dilated eye exam is critical to detect changes that occur early in the optic nerve.
  • A dilated eye exam is recommended every one to two years for people at higher risk for glaucoma, including African Americans age 40 and older, everyone over age 60 (especially Mexican Americans), and people with a family history of glaucoma.
  • Early treatment for glaucoma can usually (but not always) slow the progression of the disease. However, as of yet, there is no cure for glaucoma.

How Would You Describe the Eyesight of One with Glaucoma and How Will My Child Function with It?

Glaucoma results in peripheral field loss, which can progress to the point of total blindness if left untreated.

An individual with loss of peripheral vision has some degree of “tunnel vision” making it difficult to gather comprehensive visual information in an environment. He or she will benefit from learning visual efficiency skills such as scanning an environment in an organized manner and possibly using a reverse telescope to minimize the appearance of an image and see its entirety within the remaining field of vision.

Additionally, the individual is likely to bump into side-lying and low-lying obstacles; he or she should utilize orientation and mobility skills, such as the use of a cane, to avoid obstacles.

If your child’s vision loss progresses to near-total or total loss of sight, he or she must be taught to complete tasks without the use of vision. Your child may be taught braillescreen-reading software to use the computer, and techniques for performing life-skills and academic tasks from the teacher of students with visual impairments and orientation and mobility specialist.

It is common for bright sunlight and glare to cause significant discomfort and inability to see (this is known as a “whiteout”) in one with glaucoma. Your child may benefit from specialized sunglasses (amber-tinted lenses), use of a brimmed hat while outdoors as well as shutting blinds while indoors if glare is present.

Your child’s teacher of students with visual impairments should perform a functional vision assessment to determine how your child uses his or her vision in everyday life and a learning media assessment to determine which senses your child primarily uses to get information from the environment. These assessments, along with an orientation and mobility assessment conducted by a mobility specialist, will give the team information needed to make specific recommendations for your child to best access learning material and his or her environment.

Resources for Families of Children with Glaucoma

Lighthouse Guild for the Blind offers a free national tele-support network for parents of children with visual impairment to connect you with parents whose children also have glaucoma so that you can share resources, experiences, strength, and hope. The tele-support groups meet by phone every week and are facilitated by a psychologist or social worker with input from professionals knowledgeable about children’s eye conditions.

For more information or to enroll in a tele-support group, call 800-562-6265 or write to [email protected].

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