Glaucoma is one of the four leading causes of blindness among Americans over the age of 65. Known for its tendency to slowly erode a person’s vision over time without any obvious symptoms, it is sometimes called the “sneak thief of sight.” Because of its largely unnoticeable signs, the only reliable way to fight glaucoma and its accompanying vision loss is early diagnosis.
Effective treatment of glaucoma requires a qualified ophthalmologist, and in some cases, a glaucoma specialist. In addition, the patient’s quality of life can be greatly improved with help from family, friends and community support groups. Here’s a look at the role each of these have to play in the successful treatment of glaucoma.
1. An ophthalmologist
If you have received an official glaucoma diagnosis, you have almost certainly seen an ophthalmologist. People are often confused about the differences between an ophthalmologist and an optometrist, but the distinction is important — especially when dealing with glaucoma.
An ophthalmologist is a professional who has received either a doctor of medicine (MD) or a doctor of osteopathy (DO) degree. An ophthalmologist has completed medical school, a one-year internship and a residency, which involves at least three years of dedicated, hospital-based training in medical treatment of eye conditions, as well as surgery. Beyond this, some ophthalmologists voluntarily complete additional practical training in the form of a fellowship, and earn board certification from the American Board of Ophthalmology. And of course, physicians who practice medicine must be licensed by the state in which they work.
In contrast, an optometrist is not a medical doctor. An optometrist has earned a doctor of optometry (OD) degree from an accredited school of optometry and completed training, but is not authorized to perform surgery. Optometrists typically perform eye exams, identify conditions of nearsightedness or astigmatism and prescribe glasses and contacts.
While a small number of optometrists prescribe eye drops for glaucoma patients, the majority of optometrists refer people they suspect of having glaucoma to a qualified ophthalmologist for diagnosis and prescription. An optometrist may also play a role in pre- or post-operative care for people with glaucoma who have undergone surgery. In these cases, the optometrist works alongside and follows the directions of the ophthalmologist.
2. A glaucoma specialist
Ophthalmologists may take their studies further and choose to specialize in specific eye conditions such as glaucoma, either through an apprenticeship with a glaucoma specialist or surgeon, or through a formal, multi-year training program known as a fellowship. In either case, a glaucoma specialist is someone who has treated a large number of glaucoma patients. Still, it’s important to recognize that glaucoma specialists may differ in their level of knowledge or experience with certain newer procedures.
While general ophthalmologists are qualified to perform surgery, some may choose to refer a patient to an appropriate glaucoma specialist when a more complex procedure is required. Surgical procedures generally fall under two categories: laser or incisional. Laser surgery is typically the first line of defense because it can be performed as an outpatient procedure in an ophthalmologist’s office or the clinic of a hospital. Incisional surgery is comparably more complicated and requires local anesthesia. Intravenous sedation may also be used to protect the patient from pain during surgery.
3. Friends and family members
A glaucoma diagnosis may come as a shock to patients, even when the disease has already begun to take a toll on their sight. Blindness and severe loss of vision is a common fear, and the patient may be worried about the ability to live life fully with the condition. Because of this, it’s important for people with glaucoma to have a network of family or friends to rely on for support.
A patient with glaucoma may need assistance traveling to and from appointments to the ophthalmologist, especially after undergoing surgical treatment. Those whose condition has progressed to the point of low vision may need help running daily errands, attending social gatherings or even rearranging furniture and reorganizing their home to make their living area safer. However, they may be reluctant or embarrassed to ask for such help. Vision problems caused by glaucoma may also bring on feelings of anxiety, depression and isolation. The support of family and friends can have a big impact on how successfully people with glaucoma navigate these emotions and how well they adjust to life with the disease.
4. Community support groups
In addition to family and friends, many people with glaucoma find that local support groups can act as a valuable source of comfort and community. A support group allows people with glaucoma to discuss problems and emotions associated with the condition, and can help them learn coping strategies and lifestyle tips that have worked for others in the same situation. Local hospitals and eye care centers are a good source of information in finding a nearby support group.