Most of us have had the experience of a glaucoma test at the eye doctor: The machine that pops a maddening puff of air into your eye makes even the most peace-loving person want to beat the infernal device with a stick until it loses all its power.

That irritating test is called noncontact tonometry, or pneumotonometry, and there’s a very good reason for taking it. The puff of air is briefly flattening your cornea and the machine is measuring how much the cornea changes shape. It then uses that measurement to calculate the pressure inside your eye, also called the intraocular pressure or IOP.

Increased IOP is one of the first signs of glaucoma, a condition that left untreated typically results in permanent damage to the optic nerve, leading to blindness or loss of vision.

The routine testing may seem annoying until you consider that 1 in 200 adults under the age of 50 and even 1 in 10,000 infants are at risk for developing glaucoma.

Glaucoma is a stealthy and silent disease stealing vision from millions of every age around the globe. By the time individuals with the disease typically notice the first symptoms, which is usually a loss of peripheral vision, damage to the optic nerve has already begun. Once vision is lost, damage to the visual field cannot be recovered. Around the world glaucoma is the leading cause of blindness.

Feel a little better about that maddening puff of air now?

Early Detection Means Easy Treatment

If the symptoms of glaucoma are caught early, the most effective treatment is normally as simple as prescription eye drops to lower the intraocular pressure. Caution should be advised as sometimes glaucoma medication can interfere with other common medications, such as digitalis, a drug frequently prescribed for heart conditions. Do make sure your eye doctor has complete information in regards to your medical history and current medications.

Medications for glaucoma might include Alphagan, Xalatan, Lumigan, and Travatan, depending on your specific diagnosis.

In rare cases surgery might be indicated if the patient doesn’t respond well to medications or they cause intolerable side effects. Surgeries can range from filtration surgery, where the surgeon creates a passage in the white part of the eye for the excess fluid to drain, or the implantation of tube shunts to facilitate drainage.

A more recent development is surgical techniques involves using a laser to burn small holes in the eye to facilitate fluid outflow. The procedure, called laser trabeculoplasty, takes 15 minutes, causes little discomfort and has very few complications.

With early diagnosis glaucoma can be managed quite effectively.  So, the next time you have to get a blast from that irritating machine, remind yourself that puff of air could save your vision.