Macular degeneration can cause different symptoms in different people. The condition may be hardly noticeable in its early states. Sometimes only one eye loses vision while the other eye continues to see well for many years.
Deposits under the retina called drusen are a common indicator of macular degeneration. Drusen alone usually does not cause vision loss, but when they increase in size or number, this generally indicates an increased risk of developing advanced age-related macular degeneration (AMD). People at risk for developing advanced AMD have significant drusen, prominent dry AMD, or abnormal blood vessels under the macula in one eye (“wet” form).
The most notable symptom of macular degeneration is blurry or distorted central vision. An individual with macular degeneration may experience blurred vision; difficulty reading or performing near tasks; distortion or a dark, void area in the center of vision; distortion of lines; or difficulty driving may be noticed.
Macular degeneration may also cause a dimming of color vision. Fortunately, the disease does not cause total blindness, as side vision is not affected. Macular degeneration only affects central and color vision. However, if macular degeneration occurs in only one eye, the symptoms of the disease may be less noticeable or not noticed at all.
What causes macular degeneration?
Many older people develop macular degeneration as part of the body's natural aging process. It can be hereditary and can be caused by certain medical conditions.
The two most common types of age-related macular degeneration are “dry” (atrophic) and “wet” (exudative):
“Wet” macular degeneration (exudative)
“Wet” macular degeneration accounts for about 10% of all cases. Aging of the retina is compounded by leakage of the tiny blood vessels which nourish the retina. Growth of new, abnormal blood vessels in the scar tissue that forms from the leaking blood vessels is also common. These new blood vessels leak fluid or blood and blur central vision. The formation of dense scar tissue blocks out central vision. Vision loss may be rapid and severe.
Certain types of “wet” macular degeneration can be treated with laser surgery, a brief outpatient procedure that uses a focused beam of light to slow or stop leaking blood vessels that damage the macula. A treatment called photodynamic therapy (PDT) uses a combination of a special drug and laser treatment to show or stop leaking blood vessels.
Another form of treatment targets a specific chemical in the body that is critical in causing abnormal blood vessels to grow under the retina. This chemical is called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF). Anti-VEGF drugs block the trouble-causing VEGF, reducing the growth of abnormal blood vessels and slowing their leakage.
How is macular degeneration diagnosed?
Many people do not realize that they have a macular problem until blurred vision becomes obvious. Our eye doctors can detect early stages of macular degeneration during a comprehensive, medical eye examination – which is a dilated exam and can include the following:
In some cases special photographs, called angiograms, are taken to identify abnormal blood vessels under the retina. Fluorescent dye is injected into the arm and the eye is photographed as the dye passes through the blood vessels in the back of the eyes.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for macular degeneration. However, laser treatment may be used to slow the progression of the disease. Laser treatment can also be effective in sealing leaky blood vessels and destroying abnormal vessels so that hemorrhaging and scarring will not decrease central vision. These procedures may preserve more sight overall, though they are not cures that restore vision to normal or to previous vision levels. Despite advanced medical treatment, most people with macular degeneration still experience some vision loss.
Prevention is the best medicine.
Regular comprehensive, dilated eye examinations are the only means of detecting macular degeneration because often times the symptoms of the disease go unnoticed. Early detection of macular degeneration may prevent further vision loss, since treatment is most effective when started early. Regular comprehensive, dilated eye examinations are especially important for older adults and individuals who have family members with a history of retinal problems, macular degeneration and certain medical conditions.
If you have not had a comprehensive, dilated eye exam within the past 12 months we recommend that you schedule an appointment with one of our eye doctors. Our office has the technology necessary to diagnose macular degeneration. Remember, early detection means you receive the treatment you need before you experience permanent vision loss.