World Glaucoma Week (WGW) might further focus your attention.">

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Launched this week (March 12 2017 – March 18 2017) by the International Glaucoma Association (IGA), WGW seeks to raise awareness of the degenerative eye condition.

The IGA estimates some 600,000 people in the UK are affected by glaucoma. What’s more, because its symptoms emerge gradually – over years – as many as half of those cases remain undiagnosed.

What is glaucoma?

Glaucoma is an umbrella term for a range of eye conditions which cause permanent loss of vision. It occurs due to a build-up of fluid in the eye. In a healthy eye this fluid (called aqueous humour) drains away through a network of tissue at the same rate it is produced. This means a healthy pressure is maintained within the eye.

If that fluid fails to drain effectively the increased pressure impacts the optic nerve which is responsible for sending signals to the brain. When the optic nerve is damaged your vision becomes impaired.

However, that loss of sight occurs slowly, with the field of vision narrowing over years. Because glaucoma first affects your peripheral vision, which is less sensitive than central vision, its symptoms can go undetected for some time. This is why glaucoma is referred to as the “silent thief” – it can stealthily rob you of sight.

Who can get glaucoma?

Anyone of any age or background can develop glaucoma. However as you grow older you are at higher risk. The IGA estimates 2% of the population aged over 40 may have glaucoma and the rates are highest among the over 70s.

You are at higher risk if you have diabetes, are a long-term steroid user, short-sighted or of African, Asian or Caribbean heritage. If there is a family history of glaucoma then you are also more likely to develop the condition.

How is glaucoma diagnosed?

Because its symptoms can go unnoticed glaucoma is often only diagnosed following an eye test. It can be caught early when an optician or optometrist through examination of your optic nerve – this is what they do when they shine a bright light in your eye. It can also be diagnosed by measuring the pressure in your eye (ocular pressure) and testing your field of vision for any ‘blind spots.’

Early diagnosis is vital because damage to your optical nerve is irreversible. This is why it is important to have your eyes tested regularly. If you have private medical insurance or a health cash plan, then you will almost certainly be able to claim for these tests.

As it develops glaucoma can cause serious loss of vision and even result in blindness. An early diagnosis and often simple treatment can prevent further deterioration of vision.

How is glaucoma treated?

Eye drops are commonly prescribed to treat glaucoma. These work by reducing ocular pressure, either by helping control the production of aqueous humour or improving tissue drainage.

Another effective treatment is laser surgery. Known as laser trabeculoplasty this is typically an outpatient treatment conducted under a local anaesthetic. It works by opening up blocked tissues through which fluid should flow.

In a small number of cases glaucoma is treated by surgery. A trabeculectomy involves creating a new drainage channel in the white of the eye.

Is glaucoma covered by private medical insurance?

If you are protected by a private health policy or company medical insurance, or have a health cash plan, then you could be covered for regular eye tests. These will assist in the early diagnosis of glaucoma and enable you to take appropriate action to minimise further loss of vision.

Many private medical insurance plans may also provide cover for in and out-patient treatments such as trabeculoplasties and trabeculectomies. However, different policies will have different limits and restrictions so you should carefully compare private health insurance policies before taking out cover.

If you have already been diagnosed with glaucoma then your policy will not usually cover you for treatment. This is because private health insurance is not designed to cover pre-existing medical conditions.

Call us on 0800 018 3633 for free and impartial advice on comparing private health insurance and cover for optical diagnosis and treatments.

The Royal National Institute for the Blind’s (RNIB) easy-to-read Understanding Glaucoma guide is available to download for free.