To see the most recent innovation in glaucoma treatment, look to the stars. More specifically, look to the astronauts who have spent extended periods of time on the International Space Station.
Astronauts who are in weightless conditions for 180 days or more experience many short- and long-term side effects.
For example, according to Space.com, astronauts’ bones and muscles weaken and their sense of up and down gets confused because the vestibular system no longer can figure out where the ground and the ceiling are.
Some of the side effects impact their eyes, as well.
Astronauts returning to Earth after a long time in space have reported strange things happening to their sight. They’re more far sighted, for example, and when they’re examined, doctors find tiny wrinkles and folds on their retinas.
Gravity – or lack thereof, is the culprit. On Earth, gravity pulls more on the lower spine than the upper spine, while in weightless conditions, the pressure up and down the spine is uniform. One of the results is that spinal fluid pushing up against the optic nerve causes higher pressure in the eyes than normal.
This is important because extra pressure on the eyes is often linked to glaucoma.
The good news for the astronauts is their sight returns to normal after they’ve been in Earthbound pressures again for a while. Even so, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) wanted to address the issue for today’s astronauts and future space travelers, who might need to spend much longer periods in weightlessness.
Poise Under Pressure
There are important implications for those of us who are bound to the home planet, as well.
Glaucoma occurs when there’s poor circulation of blood and oxygen to the back of the eye. Poor circulation is the result of increased pressure caused by the buildup of fluid secreted by the colored part of the eye, called the iris. To effectively treat the disease, we need to relieve that pressure.
There are several tools in our toolbox we can use to get there:
- Drops that lower pressure inside the eye.
- Laser filtering surgeries that are quick, simple and painless.
- Shunts or tubes inserted into the eye.
- Trabeculectomy surgery, which involves cutting a pathway from the front to back to drain fluid and relieve pressure.
It’s a progression, from least invasive to most, and different people respond differently to the stages of treatment.
Space to Sight
Because of what’s been observed in people who have been in space, we now have another way to help people with glaucoma, especially when their conditions do not respond to the treatments I’ve already mentioned.
Scientists at NASA and NSBRI have developed goggles that equalize the pressure in astronauts’ eyes when they’re sleeping. Dr. John Berdahl, an ophthalmologist and glaucoma specialist in Sioux Falls, S.D., has been one of the lead physicians on the project as part of the Vision for Mars program.
With the goggles, we can reduce the risk for glaucoma damage for those that do not respond to conventional treatments.
Another Kind of Pressure
It’s important to remember we’re talking about spinal fluid pressure, not blood pressure.
At the same time, high and low blood pressure also can impact the chances for developing glaucoma or for the severity of the disease.
If a person is being treated for hypertension, there’s less circulation through the arteries and veins. You don’t want blood pressure that’s too high, but you don’t want it too low, either.
Research has shown that most of the damage from glaucoma occurs when a person is sleeping. This is because your heart rate slows and when you’re lying down, gravity is not pulling the fluid out of your eyes.
People who take their blood pressure medicine right before bedtime put themselves at greater risk if their blood pressure drops too low while they are sleeping.
What a View
It’s important to catch glaucoma early. At Lifetime Vision, we test three things:
- Field-of-vision analysis
- Optic nerve scan
We use what’s called High-Definition Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT). It detects even the tiniest changes in retinal thickness, which can be one of the first indicators of the disease.
In fact, our equipment is the same as what they use to test astronauts who have spent time at the International Space Station.
In his third law of motion, Sir Isaac Newton famously taught us that what goes up must come down. In the case of glaucoma, what’s gone up are America’s finest, and what’s come down are astronauts whose eyes have led to a new approach to glaucoma treatment.
Makes me wonder…. What other knowledge is out there, just waiting for us to discover it? Glaucoma goggles, anyone?