Glaucoma is already a leading cause of blindness in the U.S., and it is on the rise as our population ages.
It affects 3 million Americans, and the “average direct cost of glaucoma treatment ranges from $623 per year for patients with early-stage glaucoma to $2,511 per year for end-stage,” according to the Bright Focus Foundation.
What Is Glaucoma?
Glaucoma refers to a group of eye diseases that have one thing in common: fluid build-up in the front of the eye puts pressure on the optic nerve.
Sustained pressure on the delicate optic nerve causes permanent damage, and that damage to the optic nerve is what causes vision loss.
Glaucoma is therefore irreversible, although early detection and treatment can slow its progression.
The most common form of glaucoma is open-angle. This type affects more than 90 percent of glaucoma patients. It is often called the “silent thief of sight” because it starts to do damage long before symptoms are detected.
Check out the glaucoma vision simulator at the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO).
Glaucoma Causes & Treatments
The root cause of glaucoma is raised fluid pressure within the eye. This is called intraocular pressure (IOP.)
For decades, the treatment options for glaucoma have been medication, laser treatment, and surgery.
New research, however, suggests that regular aerobic exercise may also play a part in lowering IOP, at least for the common open-angle type.
The effect of exercise appears to be substantial—a 73-percent decline in the risk of glaucoma among the most physically active study participants, compared with those who were the least active.
This is not yet definitive; the AAO cautions that “more research directly examining the relationship between exercise and glaucoma is required before physicians can make specific recommendations” but that Dr. Tseng, a researcher involved in this study will in the meantime still be advising “exercise for her patients as a beneficial activity for all aspects of health, including the eyes.”
How To Lower Glaucoma Risks
Until more research establishes specific recommendations, here are some takeaways from the study:
- As the intensity of the aerobic exercise rose, the glaucoma risk is lowered.
- Blood flow to the retina and optic nerve improves during exercise.
- The benefits of IOP disappear quickly. In only three weeks after participants stopped exercising regularly, the lowered IOP also went back to previous levels.
- Heart rate and breathing rate must remain elevated in aerobic exercise. Johns Hopkins’ Glaucoma Center of Excellence recommends “at least four times per week for more than 20 minutes that raises your pulse rate to a level that makes your heart work.”
- Negative effects on IOP can result from some types of exercise. Glaucoma patients should avoid “exercises in which you stand on your head or shoulders or invert your body – as in upside-down yoga positions, scuba diving and bungee jumping,” as well as “exercises in which you inhale and then hold your breath – as in weightlifting,” according to the Glaucoma Foundation.
- This benefit to IOP appears to be limited to open-angle type glaucoma. Closed (or narrow) angle glaucoma patients did not see a benefit, and it is thought that pigmentary glaucoma patients may actually see their IOP rise after intense aerobic exercise.
As with any new exercise regime, glaucoma patients should be sure to consult first to their doctors, including their ophthalmologist, before proceeding.