What is glaucoma, what are the symptoms, and how is it treated?


3 minutes

22 April 2024

Glaucoma is a common eye disease that can gradually lead to vision loss if left untreated. More prevalent in the elderly, 1 in 10 Australians over 80 will develop glaucoma1.

In this blog, we’ll look into its causes, symptoms, and most importantly, explore the treatment options available for those with glaucoma.

What is glaucoma?

Glaucoma is a group of eye conditions that causes vision loss due to damage to the optic nerve, responsible for relaying messages from the eye to the brain to create visual images, facilitating the process of sight. One of the leading causes of glaucoma is impaired drainage of the aqueous humour, the fluid that nourishes the eye, resulting in elevated intraocular pressure inside the eye1.

Damage to the optic nerve can also arise from insufficient blood supply to the crucial optic nerve fibres, structural weaknesses in the nerve, or from issues pertaining to the overall health of the nerve fibres themselves1.

This can result in gradual vision loss and, if untreated, may lead to irreversible blindness. In fact, glaucoma is the number one cause of irreversible blindness worldwide1. Glaucoma often develops slowly, and symptoms may not be noticeable until significant damage has occurred2.

Types of glaucoma

While there are a number of different kinds of glaucoma, most can fit into two categories:

  • Open-angle glaucoma: The most common form of glaucoma, open-angle glaucoma occurs when the drain of the eye is wide open but clogging occurs further along the drainage canal and often develops without early symptoms, progressing slowly over time2, 3.
  • Closed-angle glaucoma: While less common than open-angle, closed-angle glaucoma is more severe. Closed-angle glaucoma occurs where the drain of the eye is partially or fully obstructed. It can have a sudden onset with symptoms like severe eye pain and blurred vision2, 3.

Causes and risk factors of glaucoma

Age is a significant risk factor for developing glaucoma, with individuals over 50 being more susceptible. Additionally, genetics play a role, as a family history of glaucoma increases the likelihood of developing the condition. Certain ethnic groups, particularly African and Asian populations, are also at a higher risk4.

Other risk factors include pre-existing eye conditions, such as myopia (short-sightedness) or hyperopia (farsightedness), and medical conditions like diabetes and hypertension. Trauma to the eye, corticosteroid use, migraines and sleep apnoea can also contribute to glaucoma development4.

Symptoms of glaucoma

Recognising the symptoms of glaucoma is crucial for early detection and intervention to prevent irreversible vision loss. Unfortunately, in the early stages of the disease, glaucoma often presents without noticeable symptoms2.

Individuals with open-angle glaucoma may experience peripheral vision loss, leading to tunnel vision1. However, it’s common for one eye to compensate for the other, meaning sufferers remain unaware until severe, irreversible damage has taken place1.

Individuals with chronic closed-angle glaucoma can experience blurred vision, difficulty adjusting to low light conditions and experience halos around lights. In acute cases of angle-closure glaucoma, sudden and severe symptoms such as intense eye pain, headache, nausea, and vomiting may occur, warranting immediate medical attention2.

Diagnosing glaucoma

Due to glaucoma often progressing with no noticeable symptoms, and with 50% of people in Australia with glaucoma currently being undiagnosed1, regular eye examinations with an optometrist or ophthalmologist (specialist eye doctor) are paramount for a diagnosis2.

During the examination, your optometrist or ophthalmologist will assess your optic nerve fibres and examine the structure of your eyes’ drainage network. Additionally, they will conduct tests to evaluate the field of vision, measure the intraocular pressure and corneal thickness. This examination typically takes between 20 to 45 minutes to complete2.

Glaucoma Australia suggests that individuals aged 50 and above should undergo a thorough eye examination with an optometrist every two years. Those with a family history of glaucoma or of Asian or African descent are advised to have check-ups every two years starting from the age of 405.

For more information on the importance of regular eye exams, check out our blog on the subject.

Glaucoma treatment options

While there is no cure for glaucoma, treatment options are available that can help manage, slow or even stop the progression of vision loss.

The primary approach involves the use of prescription eye drops, which either enhance fluid drainage or reduce fluid production to lower intraocular pressure6. Oral medications may also be prescribed in some cases to complement the effects of eye drops7.

Laser therapy, specifically selective laser trabeculoplasty, laser peripheral iridotomy, and cyclodiode laser treatment can be utilised to improve fluid drainage from the eye8.

In more advanced cases or if other treatments prove ineffective, surgical interventions such as minimally invasive glaucoma surgery (MIGS)9 or implants called Glaucoma Drainage Devices (GDDs)10 may be recommended to create new drainage pathways.

The best treatment will depend on various factors, including the type of glaucoma, its severity, and the patient's overall health.

It’s important to note that while the above treatments can prevent vision loss, they cannot restore sight that has already been lost due to glaucoma11.

Lifestyle changes to help manage glaucoma

Adopting a proactive approach is crucial for preventing or living with glaucoma. As previously mentioned, regular eye check-ups are paramount, allowing for early detection and intervention. If diagnosed, you should strictly adhere to your prescribed treatment plan.

Additionally, maintaining a healthy lifestyle can positively impact eye health. Adopting a healthy diet12, engaging in regular exercise13, not smoking14, and managing stress15 can positively impact your eyesight and may help reduce your chances of developing degenerative eye conditions like glaucoma.

For an in-depth look at some ways you can support your eye health through simple lifestyle changes, check out our blog, 7 ways to keep your eyesight stronger for longer.


1Healthy WA: Glaucoma

2Healthdirect: Glaucoma

3Glaucoma Australia: Types of Glaucoma

4Glaucoma Australia: Risk Factors for Glaucoma

5Glaucoma Australia: Testing For Glaucoma

6Glaucoma Australia: Eye Drops and Glaucoma

7Glaucoma Australia: Oral Medication

8Glaucoma Australia: Laser Treatment

9Glaucoma Australia: Minimally Invasive Glaucoma Surgery (MIGS)

10Glaucoma Australia: Conventional Surgery

11Glaucoma Australia: Glaucoma Treatments

12National Center for Biotechnology Information: Dietary Patterns, Carbohydrates, and Age-Related Eye Diseases

13National Center for Biotechnology Information: Physical activity, visual impairment, and eye disease

14Better Health Channel: Smoking and eye disease

15National Center for Biotechnology Information: Mental stress as consequence and cause of vision loss: the dawn of psychosomatic ophthalmology for preventive and personalized medicine


This article contains general information only and does not take into account the health, personal situation or needs of any person. In conjunction with your GP or treating health care professional, please consider whether the information is suitable for you and your personal circumstances.