Glaucoma: Why these two men - a former Irish League footballer and an electrician - say every male should have a simple eye test
Belfast electrician Paul Flannigan and Alan Murphy, from Dundonald, could have slowly lost their vision to the silent thief of sight if the condition had not been spotted by medics. They tell Stephanie Bell how a check-up saved them
It is known as the 'silent thief of sight', and while easily treated it can just as easily go undetected and is believed to be one of the main causes of blindness.
Former Irish league footballer Alan Murphy and Belfast electrician Paul Flannigan owe their sight to a simple routine eye test that thankfully picked up glaucoma in its early stages.
Neither man had any idea they were at risk of going blind and hope their experiences will highlight just how crucial it is to have regular eye tests.
Glaucoma affects 64 million people worldwide, making it the leading cause of irreversible blindness globally.
It is known as the silent thief of sight because its onset is gradual and symptomless in the early stages.
Over time the condition causes pressure to build up on the optic nerve causing damage that if left untreated can lead to blindness.
A routine eye test with an optician can detect signs of glaucoma. The sooner it is picked up, the higher the chance of successfully treating it.
Glaucoma has become such a concern that Specsavers has invested £1m in a new campaign in partnership with the International Glaucoma Association (IGA) to raise awareness and encourage regular eye examinations.
A recent study revealed that men were at a greater risk of losing their sight than women because they ignore the warning signs and fail to seek medical help. Karen Osborn, CEO of the IGA, explains: "Glaucoma is found in 2% of the UK's population aged over 40.
"Most of these people have a slow developing form of the condition.
"We estimate that half of all cases - that's over 300,000 people - remain undiagnosed and are unaware that they are slowing losing their sight.
"The health awareness campaign that IGA is working on with Specsavers will educate people about the importance of regular eye examinations before significant sight is lost. Once sight is lost, it cannot be recovered."
The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) and Specsavers carried out a State of the Nation report which revealed that nearly 14 million people in the UK are not having their eyes tested every two years as recommended. Sally Harvey (above), chief executive of RNIB, says: "We welcome any initiative that encourages people to look after their eye health.
"Regular eye tests and early detection on the high street, followed by timely intervention and management of eye health conditions, could help save your sight."
Alan Murphy (42), from Dundonald, is an insurance underwriter. He has two sons, Calum (10) and Kyle (9), and is a former Irish League player with Glenavon, Bangor, Lisburn Distillery and Larne. He now coaches an under-11 football team. It was while he was playing football for Larne in his early 30s that a routine visit to his optician changed his life. He says:
My eyes started to deteriorate in my 20s and I started to wear contact lenses. I noticed it when I was playing football because I was struggling to see the ball.
I went for eye tests every year after that and in my early 30s when I was getting a routine test done the optician, Paula Cunningham at Specsavers in Connswater, Belfast, noticed pressure in my eye.
She did say it could be glaucoma, but told me not to worry and made an urgent referral for me to the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, where I got an appointment a week later.
At the hospital they diagnosed glaucoma and told me there was already damage in part of my right eye and if I hadn't got my eyes checked I could have been blind within a couple of years. That didn't even bear thinking about.
It was a major shock and came completely out of the blue because there was no history in my family, and I had never even heard of glaucoma before.
I had no symptoms to suggest I had it and, if it hadn't been for the eye test and the optician picking it up and referring me to a specialist, I would have lost the sight in my right eye, which is very scary.
Glaucoma had already damaged a third of the sight in my right eye, but luckily that wasn't enough to stop me doing normal things or playing football.
I retired from football four years ago and now coach the Ridgeway Rovers under-11 team, which my two sons play for.
My day job is in an office and requires using the computer quite a lot, so I'm fortunate that my sight didn't get any worse.
I had laser treatment, but the doctor decided it wasn't worth putting me through surgery and I was given two sets of eye drops, which I have to use every day for the rest of my life. Meanwhile, six-monthly checks ensure the pressure hasn't got worse.
Glaucoma can be treated if it's caught early enough, but if you don't it can be devastating.
I would strongly urge everyone to get regular eye tests. It doesn't take long and gives you peace of mind. As glaucoma has no symptoms, checks are the only way to know if it is there.
It is definitely worth it."
Paul Flannigan (56), from Belfast, is an electrician with Translink and has lived with glaucoma since he was 16. He is married to Rosemary (58) and they have three grown-up children. He says:
When I was 16 and on a government training course I had to be taken to hospital after being stunned by a flash from an arc welder. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
While there it was discovered that the pressure in my eyes was very high. It wasn’t called glaucoma at the time, although that’s what it was.
The doctor told me, ‘If you do everything you are told, you will have your vision — if you don’t, you will lose it’, and that was a scary thought, especially being so young.
My eyes were also highly inflamed and I had to attend hospital appointments up to three times a week for months.
Ultimately, I had to have surgery and in one operation the surgeons created a ‘ramp’ in the top of my eye to allow the fluid to escape.
I was young at the time and my body was trying to heal itself, so it scarred over, which ruined what they had tried to do.
My (eye) pressure has always been extremely high and this led to cataracts, so I needed more surgery to have those removed.
Ten years ago it was so bad I had a plastic valve inserted in my eye. Despite all that, my vision is good and I can still drive and do everything else.
Treatments have changed over the years, and there are new drop formulations now, which stop your body producing the fluid.
After all these years, I know the signs if the pressure is building up — headaches, nausea and not being able to see properly.
I’m also well-known at the Royal, where I have had amazing consultants who attend to me when I need it.
My employer, Translink, has been amazing too, supporting me when I have to go to the hospital and through my surgeries and recovery periods. I also joined a support group run by the RNIB at the Shankill Health and Wellbeing Centre, which I found really helpful.
They brought in experts who explained everything to us with details about treatment and symptoms.
It was also really good to talk to other people who have glaucoma.
Now I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t attending hospital with it.
I still have to go for regular check-ups, but thanks to treatment and good advice on how best to manage it, I have a really good quality of life.
Glaucoma is described as silent because most people will not know it’s even there. Once your eye is damaged, it’s too late, which is why getting regular eye tests is so important.”
Primary angle closure glaucoma symptoms:
● Primary angle closure glaucoma is a less common type that occurs when the part of the eye that drains fluid becomes blocked, causing pressure to build up in the eye.
Symptoms can include:
● Intense eye pain
● A red eye
● A headache
● Tenderness around the eyes
● Seeing halos or rainbow-like rings around lights
● Blurred vision
● Feeling and being sick
● Sometimes these symptoms may last for a few hours before disappearing
The signs of secondary glaucoma:
Secondary glaucoma is an uncommon type of glaucoma caused by another eye problem. Causes include uveitis (inflammation of the middle layer of the eye), eye injuries and certain treatments, such as medication or operations. Symptoms vary considerably and may include:
● Gradual loss of peripheral vision
● Blurred vision
● Seeing halos or rainbow-like rings around lights
● Eye pain
● A red eye
So, how will it affect you?
● There are several different types of glaucoma, which can have different symptoms, causes and treatments.
● Primary open angle
glaucoma, which is sometimes called chronic open angle glaucoma, is the most common type.
● In this type of glaucoma, the part of the eye where fluid drains away (called the angle) isn’t blocked, but the fluid doesn’t drain properly. This leads to increased pressure in the eye.
● The condition usually develops very slowly over many years and doesn’t cause any noticeable symptoms at first.
● People often don’t realise they have it because the outer areas of vision (peripheral vision) are affected first. However, without treatment, vision towards the centre of the eye may also be lost.
● Primary open angle glaucoma is usually picked up during a routine eye test (above), which you should have at least every two years.