Acupuncture for Glaucoma
Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases that involves progressive loss of vision due to damage to the optic nerve. The optic nerve is responsible for transmitting visual signals to the brain which are then interpreted into the things that you see(1). Glaucoma is generally associated with higher pressure in the eye caused by fluid build up, however not all people with high eye pressure will have glaucoma (but they are at increased risk), and damage to the optic nerve can still occur when eye pressure is normal(2). Patients will often experience no symptoms of glaucoma until they begin losing their peripheral (side) vision. Left untreated, this vision loss can progress to “tunnel vision” and eventually blindness.
In Canada, glaucoma is one of the leading causes of blindness with over 400,000 people currently affected(3). With no current cure and a longer-lived senior population, instances of glaucoma are expected to rise in the future.
There are several types of glaucoma:
- Open-angle glaucoma – the most common type, often due to high eye pressure, no initial symptoms, causes gradual loss of peripheral vision
- Low/normal tension glaucoma – eye pressure is normal but damage to the optic nerve occurs anyway
- Angle-closure glaucoma – sudden increase in eye pressure due to blocked fluid drainage, causes sudden severe pain, nausea, redness of the eyes, blurred vision, this is a medical emergency, seek medical attention right away
- Congenital glaucoma – a birth defect in the eye that slows normal fluid drainage, effectively treated with prompt surgery
What are the most common causes of glaucoma?
The exact cause of glaucoma is unknown although it is usually related to increased fluid pressure in the eye. There are some other theories that point to poor blood supply to, or poor fluid movement (either blood or lymph) in and around the tissues of the eye(4).
There are several known risk factors for developing glaucoma including:
- Elevated eye pressure
- Age – the risk of developing glaucoma increases every year after the age of 60
- Family history – if other people in your family have it, you are at higher risk of developing glaucoma
- Physical injury to the eye – severe trauma can damage the structures of the eye and lead to eye pressure increases immediately or in the future
- Other medical conditions – having diabetes, high or low blood pressure, or heart disease can increase your risk for glaucoma
- Anatomical factors – certain aspect of eye anatomy (corneal thickness and optic nerve appearance) can increase the risk of developing glaucoma, as can other eye conditions
- Corticosteroid use – regular, long-term use may put some people at risk of developing secondary glaucoma
VIDEO EXPLANATION – what is glaucoma, two main types, anatomy
Standard Western medical treatments
Glaucoma can only be diagnosed after a complete eye examination, making it important to get regular checkups (In Ontario people 65 and older and those younger than 20 are covered for routine eye exams every 12 months plus any follow-up assessments that may be required(5).
There is currently no cure for glaucoma and modern pharmaceuticals cannot restore any vision loss caused by the disease. Once diagnosed, the most common treatment is eye drops that, when used regularly, reduce intraocular eye pressure. Unfortunately eye drops for glaucoma can cause side effects like stinging or itching, red eyes or red skin around the eyes, or blurred vision(6).
There are also several types of oral medication that aim to reduce eye pressure. For more severe case there are surgical options: laser surgery and conventional surgery. Both of these procedures can open up the drainage space in the eye and improve fluid movement, although there may still be a need to take glaucoma medication afterward and vision loss or other side effects are a possibility(7).
How can Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture treat glaucoma?
The way that traditional Chinese medicine addresses glaucoma is similar to the treatment of other eye conditions such as macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa. By regulating the circulation of fluids and the movement of blood through the tissues, the health and function of the optic nerve and other eye structures can be maintained. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) can be quite successful, especially if the patient is treated in the early stages of open-angle glaucoma. For those patients already undergoing conventional treatment, TCM can help manage intraocular pressure and may help to reduce the amount of medication needed. Most often a combination of nutritional support, acupuncture, and herbal medicine are used to fully address glaucoma cases.
According to TCM, fluids are “yin” in nature. When there is a buildup of fluids, it shows that the “yin” and “yang” of the body are out of balance with not enough “yang” (energy) to move the “yin” (fluids) so they slow or stagnate. In glaucoma, this stagnation is happening in the eye(8). Improving the strength of “yang” to move fresh, well-oxygenated blood to the eye tissues can encourage cellular regeneration and prevent further damage or vision loss.
It is also important to diagnose the root cause of the glaucoma, since TCM views all of the organs and systems of the body as being connected. Problems in other parts of the body, besides the eyes, can contribute to the progression of glaucoma and will be considered when a patient is seen initially(9). Generally, a TCM treatment will focus on strengthening and balancing the network of body systems to provide enough nutrients, oxygen, and blood to the tissues of the eye so they stay healthy for as long as possible.
How can Acupuncture help treat glaucoma?
Our clinic utilizes a special form of acupuncture called Microacupuncture and AvuNova to treat glaucoma. These systems are specifically used to treat eye conditions and are completely different from traditional acupuncture performed at most clinics. Acupuncture points will be stimulated in the eyebrows, hands, and feet. No needles go into the eye.
The specific protocol we use will focus on delivering blood, oxygen, and other nutrients to the eyes. This will encourage healing, manage eye pressure, and slow/prevent further vision loss. This involves using local points around the eye as well as distal points on the arms and legs. The local points will help to improve blood circulation to the eye to support the health of the optic nerve, retina and blood vessels, as well as encourage the correct movement of eye fluids. Distal points elsewhere on the body can boost these effects, as well as encouraging the overall health of the organs to produce blood and energy, and move them around the body.
Acupuncture is a safe option for glaucoma treatment and can have fewer side effects than some conventional treatments.
If you or a loved one are noticing issues with your vision or have diagnosed glaucoma please do not hesitate to contact us to find out if/how Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine can benefit you, and help you maintain clear and healthy vision.