Did you know over 2.8 million Americans have glaucoma and that number is expected to rise by 50% by the year 2032? Glaucoma, a group of eye diseases that gradually steal sight without warning, is caused by the eye’s failure to maintain the balance of pressure between the internal fluid and the amount of fluid it drains away. High eye pressure caused by this imbalance creates pressure build up against the optic nerve causing nerve damage. The most common forms primarily affect the middle-aged and the elderly, but glaucoma can affect people of all ages, particularly if you have a family history of the disease.
Vision loss is caused by damage to the optic nerve. This nerve acts like an electric cable with over a million wires. It is responsible for carrying images from the eye to the brain.
Damage typically starts in the outside peripheral vision and is often not recognized by patients. A dilated eye exam is necessary to examine the optic nerve. Treatment generally begins with eye drops. Just as in any other prescribed medication, it’s important to consistently take the drops as prescribed. Since glaucoma symptoms are typically undetected, patients will not realize the damage that can be done without following the prescription.
With increased awareness of the acceptance of marijuana in the treatment of various diseases, and the legalization of the drug, the Glaucoma Research Foundation states, “While marijuana does lower intraocular pressure (IOP), it has major drawbacks as a treatment for a chronic, long-term, disease like glaucoma. First, in contrast to conventional glaucoma eye drops (some of which are effective for up to 24 hours), smoking THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects reduces eye pressure for only 3-4 hours. To control IOP would require 8-10 doses of marijuana per day. This would not only cost more than typical glaucoma treatment, but the physical and mental side-effects of frequent marijuana use would prevent functioning productively.
Long-term Safety Concerns
Concerns also exist regarding the long-term safety of marijuana use, due to its associations with permanent lung damage when smoked, and possible permanent adverse effects on cognition and mental health. With regular use, tolerance to the eye pressure-lowering effects develops, meaning that increasing drug levels would be required to prevent the progression of glaucoma. Finally, lack of regulation and quality control makes efficacy and safety of marijuana unpredictable. Research efforts to develop THC eye drops that can effectively lower eye pressure while minimizing side effects are underway but have not yet been successful.”
For these reasons, while marijuana does lower eye pressure, it is not recommended as a medical treatment for glaucoma. If you use marijuana, let your eye doctor know since it may have an impact on your eye pressure readings. Also, it is very important to continue your current glaucoma therapy and regular monitoring as recommended by your eye doctor.
If your optometrist deems that eye drops aren’t the best course of action, lasers or in extreme cases surgical procedures may be necessary to treat the disease.
Types of glaucoma include:
Chronic (Open Angle) Glaucoma: The most common form. In open angle glaucoma, aqueous fluid drains too slowly and pressure inside the eye builds up. It usually results from aging of the drainage channel, which doesn’t work as well over time. However, younger people can also get this type of glaucoma.
Normal Tension Glaucoma: This is a form of open angle glaucoma not related to high pressure. People with normal tension glaucoma may be unusually sensitive to normal levels of pressure. Reduced blood supply to the optic nerve may also play a role in normal tension glaucoma.
Acute (Angle Closure) Glaucoma: Those of Asian and Native American descent are at higher risk for this form of glaucoma. It occurs when the drainage system of the eye becomes blocked. It causes a sudden rise in pressure, requiring immediate, emergency medical care. The signs are usually serious and may include blurred vision, severe headaches, eye pain, nausea, vomiting or seeing rainbow-like halos around lights.
January is Glaucoma Awareness Month. If you haven’t scheduled a regular eye exam, now is the time to do so. Call it your New Year’s Resolution to better health. Take action and call our offices at 724-443-6767 or 724-226-0444 and schedule your eye exam today!
About the author: John D. Bissell, owner of Tri-State Low Vision Services – a division of Bissell Eye Care, offers comprehensive eye examinations for the entire family, ocular disease detection and treatment, eye glasses, sun glasses, active wear, contact lenses, and low vision examinations for those with significant vision loss. He has undergone specialized training for treatment of low vision by the International Academy of Low Vision Specialists utilizing customized telescopic eyeglasses, prisms and telescopic implants for patients who qualify. The practice accepts most types of vision and health insurance plans.