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Is birth control linked to glaucoma?

By Zack Steele

In surfing around looking for interesting new research in the field of eye care (could my life get more exciting?), I found a recent study suggests women who have used oral contraceptives for three or more years are more likely to develop glaucoma.

Before you go flushing your birth control medication, know that the data was collected from a survey rather than controlled clinical trials. This means that much more research needs to be done to determine if there is really a connection.

The study—conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, Duke University and Third Affiliated Hospital of Nanchang University in China—used 2005-2008 data from the Centers for Disease Control’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

A total of 3,406 participants over age 40 completed the survey, which researchers used along with eye exam results. The study indicated that women who use oral contraceptives long-term are twice as likely to be diagnosed with glaucoma when compared to those who used oral contraceptives for less than three years, or not at all.  Lead investigator Elaine Wang, a fourth-year medical student at Duke University, acknowledged that more research is necessary. She also pointed out that the study did not distinguish between types of oral contraceptives, or what ethnic groups dominated the study.

However, Wang, along with fellow study authors, wanted gynecologist and eye care professionals to be aware of the possible association and consider it along with existing risk factors, such as increased intra-ocular pressure.

Glaucoma is the second-leading cause of blindness globally. There is no way to prevent the disease, but it can be controlled if caught early, which is why regular eye exams are essential. Optometrists are generally on the front line of glaucoma detection and are well aware of the known risk factors for the development of glaucoma.

To me, this just emphasizes the importance of yearly comprehensive eye examinations and glaucoma testing, including yearly intra-ocular pressure measurements, whether someone takes birth control medication or not.

Although taking birth control is not proven to be one of those risk factors at this point, the results of this study may be worrisome for some patients.

Though the study is intriguing, keep in mind that it is the first of its kind and many more need to be done. Whether  you are taking contraceptives or not, I would recommend an eye exam every year, especially if you have a family history of glaucoma.

Dr. Zack Steele is a 2003 graduate of the UAB School of Optometry. His practice, Trussville Vision Care, is located on Chalkville Mountain Road in downtown Trussville.

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