Most people know about blood pressure and the importance of treating high blood pressure, but not as many know that eye pressure exists, let alone that it is important to treat high eye pressure (also known as "ocular hypertension"). You cannot see it, and you almost always cannot feel it, but your eye pressure is a fact of life--and getting it checked regularly may mean the difference between normal vision and irreversible vision damage.
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Your eyeball is not a solid mass--instead it is a sphere filled with fluid. Fluid constantly circulates in and out of the eye, keeping a constant pressure inside the eyeball. If too much fluid gets into the eyeball without enough fluid draining out--either because the body is producing too much fluid or because a drainage canal is blocked--the pressure that the fluid exerts on the rest of the eyeball grows too high. This high eye pressure can lead to vision-destroying complications.
Age is a universal risk factor. Everyone older than 40 is at increased risk of developing high eye pressure. However, some people are at higher risk throughout their lives. These groups include African-Americans, very nearsighted and farsighted people and people with a past family history of high eye pressure and glaucoma or who have a past eye injury. Other medical conditions, like diabetes, can raise risk, as can taking medications like corticosteroids.
If it is left untreated, high eye pressure is so dangerous that it can lead to glaucoma, a disease that damages the optic nerve and leaves patients with limited peripheral vision. Advanced glaucoma can leave people unable to see anything that is not directly in their line of vision. The two most common types of glaucoma are primary open-angle glaucoma and acute angle-closure glaucoma. Primary open-angle glaucoma develops over a period of time, as gradually worsening high eye pressure slowly destroys the optic nerve. It is often difficult to notice gradual vision loss as it happens so slowly. Acute angle-closure glaucoma is an emergency condition in which the eye is unable to drain any fluid at all, leading to rocketing eye pressure.
Except in the case of acute angle-closure glaucoma, which comes on suddenly with marked symptoms like eye pain, headaches, vomiting and vision loss, high eye pressure is undetectable. It does not cause pain or redness, and if you have not yet developed glaucoma it will not affect your vision. That is why it is so important to have your vision checked every year. During an eye checkup, an ophthalmologist can check your eye pressure and make sure it is normal and examine your optic nerve for any signs of damage.
Some people have high eye pressure but do not show signs of developing glaucoma. These people may be able to be "treated" with watchful waiting, during which an ophthalmologist closely monitors the eyes' condition but prescribes no medication. If medication is needed, eyedrops are usually used to treat developing glaucoma. These eyedrops lower the eye pressure by reducing eye fluid production or by increasing the amount of fluid that drains from the eye. In advanced or emergency cases, surgery may be necessary to drain excess fluid.
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