If you’ve been diagnosed with glaucoma, then you may have questions about living with the disease, including whether or not you need to make certain lifestyle changes.
One of the changes you may need to make to protect your vision after a glaucoma diagnosis is to your exercise routine. But what kinds of exercise are OK, and what should be avoided? And what does exercise have to do with eye health, anyway?
Here, we spell out everything you need to know about glaucoma and exercise.
First, what exactly is glaucoma and who gets it?
Glaucoma is actually a group of eye conditions that damage the optic nerve, and although it can occur at any age, it’s the leading cause of blindness for people over the age of 60. It does tend to be genetic.
There are two main types of glaucoma, and both are marked by an increase in eye pressure (called intraocular pressure, or IOP).
- Open-angle glaucoma is the most common, and 90% of glaucoma patients have this type.
- Acute angle-closure glaucoma is less common, but is more dangerous and is a medical emergency.
How do I know if I have glaucoma?
The symptoms of acute angle-closure glaucoma come on very suddenly, and those experiencing them usually feel pain and distress. In other words, you’ll probably know something is wrong.
Stop what you’re doing and go see an eye doctor immediately if you experience the sudden onset of any grouping of these symptoms:
- Eye pain
- Blurred vision
- Severe headache
- Nausea and vomiting
- Seeing halos around lights
- Eye redness
How is glaucoma diagnosed?
Dr. Chad Carlsson, founder of Carlsson Family Eye Center, says that the causes of glaucoma can be elusive. “To this day, doctors don’t fully understand the origins of glaucoma and why it happens to some patients and not others.”
He says there are three methods, or tests, used to diagnose glaucoma.
Optical coherence tomography (OCT): This newer technology allows your eye doctor to analyze various structures of the eyes to diagnose glaucoma or other eye diseases. “We can analyze ‘the angle’ in the eye where the outer part of the iris meets the cornea in the eye,” Dr. Carlsson explains. “If that angle is narrow or the opening is tight, that can lead to acute angle-closure glaucoma since the ‘gutter system’ of the eye (where fluid drains out) becomes obstructed or closed off.” When fluids can’t drain out, this causes an increase in pressure, compromising the optic nerve.
Your eye doctor can also use OCT to analyze blood flow in the eye, which is helpful since low blood flow is an indicator of glaucoma.
Visual field (VF) testing: This test allows your eye doctor to see if there is any damage by looking for visual field defects in the periphery of your nasal field, one of the earliest signs of glaucoma.
Intraocular pressure (IOP) check: This is the most common screening test. “Pressures between 10 and 21 are considered normal pressures for the eye, thus indicating no concerns for glaucoma,” says Dr. Carlsson. “However, you can have ‘normal tension’ glaucoma (when pressure falls within the normal range of 10 to 21), but the patient is still showing signs of glaucoma. These cases usually involve poor blood flow to the optic nerve vs. elevated pressures in the eye, like traditional open angle glaucoma.”
Once you’re diagnosed, your eye doctor will give you important instructions to follow — everything from how to use prescription eye drops (if prescribed), to which foods you should and shouldn’t eat.
Can I exercise with glaucoma?
The answer is yes, and you should. Physical activity has been proven to be helpful in improving blood flow to the brain and to the eye, lowering eye pressure in glaucoma patients. Studies even show that those who exercise regularly have a reduced risk (up to 73%) of developing glaucoma.
What kinds of exercise are OK if I have glaucoma?
The best kind of exercise to do when you have glaucoma is vigorous aerobic exercise: Fast/aerobic walking, jogging, swimming or biking are all good activities.
Dr. Carlsson recommends cardio exercise to his glaucoma patients, and his patients who are at risk of developing glaucoma. “Glaucoma is a slow, progressive disease, so unless I see obvious progression of the disease, I tell patients to do more cardio exercises as a way to improve blood flow throughout the body, and that of course includes the eye.”
Try to get your heart rate up at least four times per week for 20 minutes at a time.
What exercises and activities should people with glaucoma avoid?
Avoid exercises in which you are upside down or your head is below your heart. Examples include inverted yoga positions (such as down dog) and headstands. These kinds of positions can raise your eye pressure to two to three times higher than normal.
Other activities that raise eye pressure should be avoided, as well, such as bungee jumping, skydiving and scuba diving.
Remember to breathe, no matter what kinds of exercises you’re doing. If you inadvertently hold your breath, it also raises your eye pressure.
At Carlsson Family Eye Center, your eye health and overall health are our top priorities. Make an appointment today.