Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases which result in damage to the optic nerve and vision loss. The most common type is open-angle glaucoma with less common types including closed-angle glaucoma and normal-tension glaucoma. Open-angle glaucoma develops slowly over time and there is no pain. Peripheral vision may begin to decrease followed by central vision resulting in blindness if not treated. Closed-angle glaucoma can present gradually or suddenly. The sudden presentation may involve severe eye pain, blurred vision, mid-dilated pupil, redness of the eye, and nausea. Vision loss from glaucoma, once it has occurred, is permanent.
Risk factors for glaucoma include increased pressure in the eye, a family history of the condition, and high blood pressure. For eye pressures a value of greater than 21 mmHg or 2.8 kPa is often used with higher pressures leading to a greater risk. However, some may have high eye pressure for years and never develop damage. Conversely, optic nerve damage may occur with normal pressure, known as normal-tension glaucoma. The mechanism of open-angle glaucoma is believed to be slow exit of aqueous humor through the trabecular meshwork while in closed-angle glaucoma the iris blocks the trabecular meshwork. Diagnosis is by a dilated eye examination. Often the optic nerve shows an abnormal amount of cupping.
If treated early it is possible to slow or stop the progression of disease with medication, laser treatment, or surgery. The goal of these treatments is to decrease eye pressure. A number of different classes of glaucoma medication are available. Laser treatments may be effective in both open-angle and closed-angle glaucoma. A number of types of glaucoma surgeries may be used in people who do not respond sufficiently to other measures. Treatment of closed-angle glaucoma is a medical emergency.
Signs and Symptoms
Open-angle glaucoma is painless and does not have acute attacks, thus the lack of clear symptoms make screening via regular eye check-ups important. The only signs are gradually progressive visual field loss, and optic nerve changes (increased cup-to-disc ratio on fundoscopic examination).
About 10% of people with closed angles present with acute angle closure characterized by sudden ocular pain, seeing halos around lights, red eye, very high intraocular pressure (>30 mmHg), nausea and vomiting, suddenly decreased vision, and a fixed, mid-dilated pupil. It is also associated with an oval pupil in some cases. Acute angle closure is an emergency.
Opaque specks may occur in the lens in glaucoma, known as glaukomflecken.
The underlying cause of open-angle glaucoma remains unclear. Several theories exist on its exact etiology. However, the major risk factor for most glaucomas and the focus of treatment is increased intraocular pressure. Intraocular pressure is a function of production of liquid aqueous humor by the ciliary processes of the eye, and its drainage through the trabecular meshwork. Aqueous humor flows from the ciliary processes into the posterior chamber, bounded posteriorly by the lens and the zonules of Zinn, and anteriorly by the iris. It then flows through the pupil of the iris into the anterior chamber, bounded posteriorly by the iris and anteriorly by the cornea. From here, the trabecular meshwork drains aqueous humor via the scleral venous sinus (Schlemm’s canal) into scleral plexuses and general blood circulation.
In open/wide-angle glaucoma, flow is reduced through the trabecular meshwork, due to the degeneration and obstruction of the trabecular meshwork, whose original function is to absorb the aqueous humor. Loss of aqueous humor absorption leads to increased resistance and thus a chronic, painless buildup of pressure in the eye.
In close/narrow-angle, the iridocorneal angle is completely closed because of forward displacement of the final roll and root of the iris against the cornea, resulting in the inability of the aqueous fluid to flow from the posterior to the anterior chamber and then out of the trabecular network. This accumulation of aqueous humor causes an acute increase in pressure and pain.
The inconsistent relationship of glaucomatous optic neuropathy with increased intraocular pressure has provoked hypotheses and studies on anatomic structure, eye development, nerve compression trauma, optic nerve blood flow, excitatory neurotransmitter, trophic factor, retinal ganglion cell/axon degeneration, glial support cell, immune system, aging mechanisms of neuron loss, and severing of the nerve fibers at the scleral edge.
The United States Preventive Services Task Force stated, as of 2013, that there was insufficient evidence to recommend for or against screening for glaucoma. Therefore, there is no national screening program in the US. Screening, however, is recommended starting at age 40 by the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
There is a glaucoma screening program in the UK. Those at risk are advised to have a dilated eye examination at least once a year.
The modern goals of glaucoma management are to avoid glaucomatous damage and nerve damage, and preserve visual field and total quality of life for patients, with minimal side-effects. This requires appropriate diagnostic techniques and follow-up examinations, and judicious selection of treatments for the individual patient. Although intraocular pressure (IOP) is only one of the major risk factors for glaucoma, lowering it via various pharmaceuticals and/or surgical techniques is currently the mainstay of glaucoma treatment. A review of people with primary open-angle glaucoma and ocular hypertension concluded that medical IOP lowering treatment slowed down the progression of visual field loss.
Vascular flow and neurodegenerative theories of glaucomatous optic neuropathy have prompted studies on various neuroprotective therapeutic strategies, including nutritional compounds, some of which may be regarded by clinicians as safe for use now, while others are on trial.
Intraocular pressure can be lowered with medication, usually eye drops. Several classes of medications are used to treat glaucoma, with several medications in each class.
Each of these medicines may have local and systemic side effects. Adherence to medication protocol can be confusing and expensive; if side effects occur, the patient must be willing either to tolerate them or to communicate with the treating physician to improve the drug regimen. Initially, glaucoma drops may reasonably be started in either one or in both eyes. Wiping the eye with an absorbent pad after the administration of eye drops may result in fewer adverse effects, like the growth of eyelashes and hyperpigmentation in the eyelid.
Poor compliance with medications and follow-up visits is a major reason for vision loss in glaucoma patients. A 2003 study of patients in an HMO found half failed to fill their prescriptions the first time, and one-fourth failed to refill their prescriptions a second time. Patient education and communication must be ongoing to sustain successful treatment plans for this lifelong disease with no early symptoms.
The possible neuroprotective effects of various topical and systemic medications are also being investigated.
Prostaglandin analogs, such as latanoprost, bimatoprost and travoprost, increase uveoscleral outflow of aqueous humor. Bimatoprost also increases trabecular outflow.
Topical beta-adrenergic receptor antagonists, such as timolol, levobunolol, and betaxolol, decrease aqueous humor production by the epithelium of the ciliary body.
Alpha2-adrenergic agonists, such as brimonidine and apraclonidine, work by a dual mechanism, decreasing aqueous humor production and increasing uveoscleral outflow.
Less-selective alpha agonists, such as epinephrine, decrease aqueous humor production through vasoconstriction of ciliary body blood vessels, useful only in open-angle glaucoma. Epinephrine’s mydriatic effect, however, renders it unsuitable for closed-angle glaucoma due to further narrowing of the uveoscleral outflow (i.e. further closure of trabecular meshwork, which is responsible for absorption of aqueous humor).
Miotic agents (parasympathomimetics), such as pilocarpine, work by contraction of the ciliary muscle, opening the trabecular meshwork and allowing increased outflow of the aqueous humour. Echothiophate, an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor, is used in chronic glaucoma.
Carbonic anhydrase inhibitors, such as dorzolamide, brinzolamide, and acetazolamide, lower secretion of aqueous humor by inhibiting carbonic anhydrase in the ciliary body.
Argon laser trabeculoplasty (ALT) may be used to treat open-angle glaucoma, but this is a temporary solution, not a cure. A 50-μm argon laser spot is aimed at the trabecular meshwork to stimulate the opening of the mesh to allow more outflow of aqueous fluid. Usually, half of the angle is treated at a time. Traditional laser trabeculoplasty uses a thermal argon laser in an argon laser trabeculoplasty procedure.
A newer type of laser trabeculoplasty uses a “cold” (nonthermal) laser to stimulate drainage in the trabecular meshwork. This newer procedure, selective laser trabeculoplasty (SLT), uses a 532-nm, frequency-doubled, Q-switched Nd:YAG laser, which selectively targets melanin pigment in the trabecular meshwork cells. Studies show SLT is as effective as ALT at lowering eye pressure. In addition, SLT may be repeated three to four times, whereas ALT can usually be repeated only once.
Nd:YAG laser peripheral iridotomy (LPI) may be used in patients susceptible to or affected by angle closure glaucoma or pigment dispersion syndrome. During laser iridotomy, laser energy is used to make a small, full-thickness opening in the iris to equalize the pressure between the front and back of the iris, thus correcting any abnormal bulging of the iris. In people with narrow angles, this can uncover the trabecular meshwork. In some cases of intermittent or short-term angle closure, this may lower the eye pressure. Laser iridotomy reduces the risk of developing an attack of acute angle closure. In most cases, it also reduces the risk of developing chronic angle closure or of adhesions of the iris to the trabecular meshwork.
Diode laser cycloablation lowers IOP by reducing aqueous secretion by destroying secretory ciliary epithelium.
Both laser and conventional surgeries are performed to treat glaucoma. Surgery is the primary therapy for those with congenital glaucoma. Generally, these operations are a temporary solution, as there is not yet a cure for glaucoma.
Canaloplasty is a nonpenetrating procedure using microcatheter technology. To perform a canaloplasty, an incision is made into the eye to gain access to the Schlemm’s canal in a similar fashion to a viscocanalostomy. A microcatheter will circumnavigate the canal around the iris, enlarging the main drainage channel and its smaller collector channels through the injection of a sterile, gel-like material called viscoelastic. The catheter is then removed and a suture is placed within the canal and tightened.
By opening the canal, the pressure inside the eye may be relieved, although the reason is unclear, since the canal (of Schlemm) does not have any significant fluid resistance in glaucoma or healthy eyes. Long-term results are not available.
The most common conventional surgery performed for glaucoma is the trabeculectomy. Here, a partial thickness flap is made in the scleral wall of the eye, and a window opening is made under the flap to remove a portion of the trabecular meshwork. The scleral flap is then sutured loosely back in place to allow fluid to flow out of the eye through this opening, resulting in lowered intraocular pressure and the formation of a bleb or fluid bubble on the surface of the eye.
Scarring can occur around or over the flap opening, causing it to become less effective or lose effectiveness altogether. Traditionally, chemotherapeutic adjuvants, such as mitomycin C (MMC) or 5-fluorouracil (5-FU), are applied with soaked sponges on the wound bed to prevent filtering blebs from scarring by inhibiting fibroblast proliferation. Contemporary alternatives to prevent the scarring of the meshwork opening include the sole or combinative implementation of nonchemotherapeutic adjuvants such as the ologen collagen matrix, which has been clinically shown to increase the success rates of surgical treatment.
Collagen matrix prevents scarring by randomizing and modulating fibroblast proliferation in addition to mechanically preventing wound contraction and adhesion.
Glaucoma drainage implants
Professor Anthony Molteno developed the first glaucoma drainage implant, in Cape Town in 1966. Since then, several types of implants have followed on from the original, the Baerveldt tube shunt, or the valved implants, such as the Ahmed glaucoma valve implant or the ExPress Mini Shunt and the later generation pressure ridge Molteno implants. These are indicated for glaucoma patients not responding to maximal medical therapy, with previous failed guarded filtering surgery (trabeculectomy). The flow tube is inserted into the anterior chamber of the eye, and the plate is implanted underneath the conjunctiva to allow a flow of aqueous fluid out of the eye into a chamber called a bleb.
The first-generation Molteno and other nonvalved implants sometimes require the ligation of the tube until the bleb formed is mildly fibrosed and water-tight. This is done to reduce postoperative hypotony—sudden drops in postoperative intraocular pressure.
Valved implants, such as the Ahmed glaucoma valve, attempt to control postoperative hypotony by using a mechanical valve.
Ab interno implants, such as the Xen Gel Stent, are transscleral implants by an ab interno procedure to channel aqueous humor into the non-dissected Tenon’s space, creating a subconjunctival drainage area similar to a bleb. The implants are transscleral and different from more other ab interno implants that do not create a transscleral drainage, such as iStent, CyPass, or Hydrus.
The ongoing scarring over the conjunctival dissipation segment of the shunt may become too thick for the aqueous humor to filter through. This may require preventive measures using antifibrotic medications, such as 5-fluorouracil or mitomycin-C (during the procedure), or other nonantifibrotic medication methods, such as collagen matrix implant, or biodegradable spacer, or later on create a necessity for revision surgery with the sole or combinative use of donor patch grafts or collagen matrix implant. And for glaucomatous painful blind eye and some cases of glaucoma, cyclocryotherapy for ciliary body ablation could be considered to be performed.
Laser-assisted nonpenetrating deep sclerectomy
The most common surgical approach currently used for the treatment of glaucoma is trabeculectomy, in which the sclera is punctured to alleviate intraocular pressure.
Nonpenetrating deep sclerectomy (NPDS) surgery is a similar, but modified, procedure, in which instead of puncturing the scleral bed and trabecular meshwork under a scleral flap, a second deep scleral flap is created, excised, with further procedures of deroofing the Schlemm’s canal, upon which, percolation of liquid from the inner eye is achieved and thus alleviating intraocular pressure, without penetrating the eye. NPDS is demonstrated to have significantly fewer side effects than trabeculectomy. However, NPDS is performed manually and requires higher level of skills that may be assisted with instruments. In order to prevent wound adhesion after deep scleral excision and to maintain good filtering results, NPDS as with other non-penetrating procedures is sometimes performed with a variety of biocompatible spacer or devices, such as the Aquaflow collagen wick, ologen Collagen Matrix, or Xenoplast glaucoma implant.
Laser-assisted NPDS is performed with the use of a CO2 laser system. The laser-based system is self-terminating once the required scleral thickness and adequate drainage of the intraocular fluid have been achieved. This self-regulation effect is achieved as the CO2 laser essentially stops ablating as soon as it comes in contact with the intraocular percolated liquid, which occurs as soon as the laser reaches the optimal residual intact layer thickness.
In open-angle glaucoma, the typical progression from normal vision to complete blindness takes about 25 years to 70 years without treatment, depending on the method of estimation used. The intraocular pressure can also have an effect, with higher pressures reducing the time until blindness.
As of 2010, there were 44.7 million people in the world with open angle glaucoma. The same year, there were 2.8 million people in the United States with open angle glaucoma. By 2020, the prevalence is projected to increase to 58.6 million worldwide and 3.4 million the United States.
Both internationally and in the United States, glaucoma is the second-leading cause of blindness. Globally, cataracts are a more common cause. Glaucoma is also the leading cause of blindness in African Americans, who have higher rates of primary open-angle glaucoma. Bilateral vision loss can negatively affect mobility and interfere with driving.
A meta-analysis published in 2009 found that people with primary open angle glaucoma do not have increased mortality rates, or increased risk of cardiovascular death.
The association of elevated intraocular pressure (IOP) and the eye disease glaucoma was first described by Englishman Richard Bannister in 1622: “…that the Eye be grown more solid and hard, then naturally it should be…”. Angle-closure glaucoma was treated with cataract extraction by John Collins Warren in Boston as early as 1806. The invention of the ophthalmoscope by Hermann Helmholtz in 1851 enabled ophthalmologists for the first time to identify the pathological hallmark of glaucoma, the excavation of the optic nerve head due to retinal ganglion cell loss. The first reliable instrument to measure intraocular pressure was invented by Norwegian ophthalmologist Hjalmar August Schiøtz in 1905. About half a century later, Hans Goldmann in Berne, Switzerland, developed his applanation tonometer which still today – despite numerous new innovations in diagnostics – is considered the gold standard of determining this crucial pathogenic factor. In the late 20th century, further pathomechanisms beyond elevated IOP were discovered and became the subject of research like insufficient blood supply – often associated with low or irregular blood pressure – to the retina and optic nerve head. The first drug to reduce IOP, pilocarpine, was introduced in the 1870s. Early surgical techniques like iridectomy and fistulating methods have recently been supplemented by less invasive procedures like small implants, a range of options now widely called MIGS (micro-invasive glaucoma surgery).
The word “glaucoma” comes from the Ancient Greek γλαύκωμα, a derivative of γλαυκóς, which commonly described the color of eyes which were not dark (i.e. blue, green, light gray). Eyes described as γλαυκóς due to disease might have had a gray cataract in the Hippocratic era, or, in the early Common Era, the greenish pupillary hue sometimes seen in angle-closure glaucoma.