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How Does Diabetes Affect Glaucoma?

With over two decades of experience in medicine, Melissa Flagg writes patient education articles, keeping you informed about your health.

The "Silent Thief"

Glaucoma is known as the “silent thief” because of how slowly it affects a person’s vision. It is so slow, in fact, that visual loss is usually undetectable by the patient until it is too late.

For diabetics, glaucoma can be complicated by neovascularization. But in order to understand clearly how diabetes affects glaucoma, we need to understand what glaucoma is exactly.

What is Glaucoma?

The definition of glaucoma is increased intraocular pressure. It is a disease that affects the way the aqueous fluid drains in the eye.

Aqueous is found in the anterior chamber, which is located between the iris and the cornea. It is produced by the ciliary body, which is found behind the iris.

In glaucoma, one of two things happens to the aqueous:

  • Too much aqueous is produced (very rare, usually related to medications)
  • Drainage is hindered by an obstruction or narrowing of the drainage tubes

Both of these problems lead to a buildup of aqueous fluid in the eye, causing the eye pressure to increase. The eye needs pressure in order to keep its shape. However, too much pressure can cause permanent damage to the optic nerve and lead to blindness.

The Optic Nerve

The optic nerve is the gathering of retinal fibers into a bundle that exits the eye and travels to the occipital lobe of the brain. Each area of the retina corresponds to a specific section of the optic nerve. The retina is, essentially, one big neuron with a very long axon or tail.

Optic Nerve Cupping

When the pressure in the eye rises, it forces the optic nerve to “cup.” This creates a bowl-like appearance to the optic nerve, which results in the loss of peripheral vision.

If we think of the optic nerve as a doughnut, the center hole would be the cupping created by the increased pressure, and the doughnut would be the rim of the optic nerve. The size of the doughnut hole grows as the pressure in the eye rises, which leads to permanent vision loss.

Types of Glaucoma

There are two main types of glaucoma:

  • Primary (chronic) Open Angle Glaucoma
  • Acute Narrow Angle Glaucoma

Primary open-angle glaucoma results from an obstruction (either partial or complete) of the eye’s drainage system, specifically the trabecular meshwork. This meshwork is porous like a sponge, and as we age, the pores narrow, causing the flow of aqueous to slow.

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In patients with glaucoma, there is more narrowing of the pores than there would be in someone without the disease. Open-angle glaucoma progresses slowly and very rarely has any symptoms. Damage is caused by sustained increased pressure over a long period of time.

Narrow Angle Glaucoma

Narrow-angle glaucoma is not as common as open-angle, but it is more vicious. The “angle” is the space between the iris and the back of the cornea (see image below).

In patients with narrow-angle glaucoma, this structure, as its name suggests, is very narrow and does not allow the aqueous to easily flow through the drainage system, called the trabecular meshwork, and then out of the eye.

A diagram of the "angle" of the eye.

A diagram of the "angle" of the eye.

This type of glaucoma occurs suddenly and is very painful. If not treated, narrow-angle glaucoma can cause permanent blindness in 24 to 48 hours. Symptoms of this type of glaucoma include:

  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Excruciating pain that occurs suddenly
  • Rainbows and halos around lights, especially at night
  • Redness
  • Hazy vision (caused by corneal edema or swelling)
  • Sudden complete loss of vision

There are other types of glaucoma; however, a discussion of these types would be beyond the scope of this article.

The Effects of Diabetes on Glaucoma

Diabetes has a tendency to complicate an already complicated disease. It can either exacerbate the condition in someone who already has glaucoma, or it can be the cause.

The most important thing to remember for diabetics is to keep their blood sugar levels under control. Inconsistent blood sugar levels cause the blood vessels all over the body to weaken, but because the eye’s blood vessels are so delicate, they are often the first ones affected.

When the vessels in the eye weaken, they begin to break down and leak. This leakage not only damages the retina but also prevents oxygen from getting to its destination. In an effort to fix this, the body grows new blood vessels. This process is called neovascularization. Unfortunately, these new blood vessels are even weaker than the parent vessels and are more likely to rupture and leak.

Neovascularization doesn’t just affect the retina. These new blood vessels can grow into the iris and then the angle, eventually cutting off the flow of aqueous through the trabecular meshwork, which will effectively close the angle. This is called neovascular glaucoma and can lead to a rapid rise in pressure and permanent blindness if left untreated.

Treatment of Neovascular Glaucoma

Neovascular glaucoma is not an easy disease to treat. The main treatments available are:

  • Eye drops
  • Anti-VEGF injections
  • Laser therapy
  • Trabeculectomy surgery
  • Aqueous drainage implants

The goal of treatment for this disease is to get the aqueous out of the eye. One option is to use eye drops to decrease the production of aqueous, allowing time for the fluid to drain. Eye drops are most effective in the earliest stages of the disease. They do not, however, prevent neovascularization. They only reduce the amount of aqueous produced.

Anti-vascular endothelial growth factor (anti-VEGF) medications, such as Avastin or Lucentis, are being used more frequently to treat neovascular glaucoma in the early stages. These medications help to prevent the further growth of new blood vessels, slowing the progression of the disease. When paired with eye drops, the visual prognosis can be improved significantly.

Laser therapy involves the destruction of the ciliary body that produces aqueous in an effort to limit the production of the fluid. However, long-term effects and benefits are not well established. Laser treatment can improve the outcome of surgical procedures if done pre-operatively.

Trabeculectomy surgery is one of the most invasive but effective treatments for both neovascular and primary open angle glaucoma. It involves creating a “bleb,” or permanent drain, at the limbus (the junction between the cornea and the sclera—see image).

There is a downside to this form of treatment, however. The bleb can become infected or obstructed. In the case of infection, antibiotic eye drops are quite effective. If the bleb becomes obstructed, however, the procedure may need to be repeated.

Probably the most effective treatment for neovascular glaucoma is the aqueous drainage implants. A shunt is placed in the eye at the pars plana, which is part of the ciliary body (behind the iris). Although this is an invasive procedure, the risk of infection after surgery is much lower than that of the trabeculectomy.

The best treatment for neovascular glaucoma is prevention. Diabetics have several risk factors for neovascular glaucoma, the most common of which is diabetic retinopathy. To prevent retinopathy and neovascular glaucoma, it is imperative to keep blood sugar levels stable and within normal range.

If you suspect you have loss of vision or have noticed visual disturbances or symptoms, you should contact your ophthalmologist right away. This article is in no way a substitute for the advice of your physician.

This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2012 Mel Flagg COA OSC


Nan corn on November 10, 2017:

I just found out I have narrow angle glaucoma and I have to go in on Monday to have what’s called Iridotomy. I’m also a 38 years type 1 diabetic. Im just wondering if my diabetes played a large roll in me developing narrow angle glaucoma. My day has macular degeneration and is blind in one eye and almost blind in the other. Can all this be related. FYI I am the only person in my family to have developed diabetes, it started out as gestational.

Mel Flagg COA OSC (author) from Rural Central Florida on September 04, 2017:

This article specifically talks about diabetes and how it affects glaucoma (hence the title); however, I am currently working on an article about primary open angle glaucoma which is the most common for of glaucoma. But if you had a specific question that I can answer, I'd be happy to help. :)

Constance wooden on September 01, 2017:

What about kids and adults with glaucoma without diabetes.diabetes may not help but that does not go hand and hand with glaucoma

Mel Flagg COA OSC (author) from Rural Central Florida on August 26, 2012:

@Mazzy Bolero, I might have to write a hub on the different types of glaucoma because there are quite a few of them.

Mazzy Bolero from the U.K. on August 26, 2012:

I hadn't known about the different types. I will show this to a friend of mine who has diabetes. It's very helpful, thanks.

Mel Flagg COA OSC (author) from Rural Central Florida on August 25, 2012:

Thank you amanthkro1! Greatly appreciated!

Aman Thakur from India on August 25, 2012:

Very informative hub and must read for diabetic patients. Voting this up and useful!!!!!!!1

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