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Pigmentary Glaucoma Clinical Presentation

  • Author: Yaniv Barkana, MD; Chief Editor: Hampton Roy, Sr, MD  more...
Updated: Oct 13, 2014


Patients with pigmentary glaucoma (PG) are usually asymptomatic.



Many patients with pigment dispersion glaucoma remain undetected, while those patients with glaucoma are misdiagnosed more often than not as having juvenile-onset glaucoma or primary open-angle glaucoma (POAG).[5] Those patients without elevated intraocular pressure (IOP) may have the presence of Krukenberg spindles noted, but they often are told that they have normal eye examinations and are not cautioned regarding possible future consequences of or the hereditary nature of the syndrome. Phenotypic expression varies, and some manifestations may be extremely subtle or perhaps not expressed at all, leading to lack of detection in a large segment of affected persons. Finally, many emmetropes and hyperopes, particularly prior to the onset of presbyopia, never undergo formal eye examinations, and even less frequently are they examined by ophthalmologists.

  • Movement of the posteriorly bowed concave iris along the anterior zonular fibers results in the characteristic iris transillumination defects. This finding is pathognomonic for pigment dispersion syndrome (PDS). Searching for iris transillumination defects prior to pupillary dilation using a small slit beam in a darkened room is best. However, patients who do not appear to have transillumination defects on retroillumination but have increased trabecular pigmentation, Krukenberg spindle, myopia, or juvenile open-angle glaucoma can be examined with scleral transillumination using a fiberoptic scleral transilluminator in a darkened room to facilitate detection. Infrared video pupillography is also useful to determine the extent of the defects.[6]
  • Pigment accumulation on the anterior surface of the iris often appears as concentric rings within the iris furrows. More diffuse pigmentation can cause a diffuse darkening of iris color, which is more apparent in lightly pigmented irides because of the degree of color change. Asymmetric pigment liberation may result in iris heterochromia, with the darker iris being the more affected side.
  • Pigment deposition in the trabecular meshwork typically produces a homogenous, densely pigmented band (mascara line). In older patients, in whom the trabecular meshwork begins to recover and the pigment gradually clears, the pigment band may become darker superiorly more than inferiorly, a pattern referred to as the pigment reversal sign. In these patients, it may be the only sign that suggests previous pigment dispersion. In such cases, examination of these patients' children may be confirmatory.
  • Pigment may also accumulate at the zonular attachments to the lens, where it may form a Zentmayer ring.
  • Patients with pigment dispersion syndrome and pigmentary glaucoma are at increased risk for retinal detachment, which may occur in as many as 6-7% of individuals. Retinal breaks and lattice degeneration may occur twice as frequently in these eyes when compared to age and refraction-matched controls and are independent of the use of miotics and degree of myopia.


As described by Campbell in 1979, mechanical contact between the concave posterior iris surface and anterior zonular packets is responsible for the release of pigment granules from the iris pigment epithelium (IPE).[7] Histopathologic study and electron microscopy have confirmed the location of the iris defects to closely correspond to the position of the zonular packets. Whether a defect of the iris pigment epithelium in pigment dispersion syndrome contributes to their rupture or whether the release is due to mechanical forces alone is not known.

  • Greater pigment liberation tends to occur in eyes with more pronounced iris concavity, presumably because of the closer proximity of the iris pigment epithelium to the zonules. The insertion of the iris into the ciliary body has been reported to be more posterior in pigment dispersion syndrome than in control eyes, an anatomic variation which places the iris pigment epithelium into closer proximity to the zonular apparatus and may increase the likelihood of iridozonular contact and zonular pigment dispersion. Trabecular endothelial damage and meshwork dysfunction lead to elevated IOP in susceptible individuals.
  • Active pigment liberation typically occurs in patients in their third and fourth decades in life. As affected individuals age, increased pupillary miosis and cataract formation cause a slow increase in relative pupillary block, which increases resistance of aqueous flow from the posterior chamber, through the pupil, and into the anterior chamber. This permits accumulation of aqueous within the posterior chamber and increases the distance between the zonules and the iris. This may result in either a decrease or resolution of active pigment release by decreasing iridozonular contact.
  • Continued phagocytosis of existing pigment in the trabecular meshwork may result in better aqueous outflow, improving IOP control. Lichter and Shaffer observed a definite decrease in the amount of meshwork pigment in 10% of 102 patients and concluded that the pigment could pass out of the meshwork as the patient aged.[8] Older patients presenting with glaucoma may have only very subtle manifestations, if any, of pigment dispersion syndrome, and may be diagnosed to have primary open-angle glaucoma or low-tension glaucoma.
  • Reverse pupillary block involves the following:
    • Iridozonular contact occurs in pigment dispersion syndrome because the iris has a concave configuration, which brings it into closer approximation to the zonular apparatus. Since iris position changes with fluid pressure gradients within the anterior segment, the concept of reverse pupillary block has developed to explain the anatomic abnormalities, which lead to the iris concavity.
    • In reverse pupillary block, aqueous humor pressure is greater in the anterior chamber than in the posterior chamber. This is the opposite of relative pupillary block seen in angle-closure glaucoma, in which resistance to aqueous flow through the pupil causes the iris to move anteriorly and close the angle. Pupillary block angle-closure is relieved by laser iridectomy, which allows aqueous to move freely through the iridectomy into the anterior chamber, relieving the pressure gradient across the iris and opening the angle.
    • Reverse pupillary block could occur if an aliquot of aqueous were to be introduced suddenly into the anterior chamber and then trapped there, so as to be unable to equilibrate with aqueous in the posterior chamber. The increased pressure within the anterior chamber forces the iris against the lens, creating a flap valve that maintains the pressure differential between the chambers by preventing movement of aqueous back into the posterior chamber. The relative pressure difference between the 2 chambers would cause the iris to assume a concave configuration.
    • A concave iris configuration caused by a relative pressure differential between the anterior and posterior chambers is not unique to pigment dispersion syndrome. In iris retraction syndrome, increased uveoscleral outflow facilitated by retinal pigment epithelium–assisted fluid absorption in the presence of a retinal break causes the pressure within the posterior segment and the posterior chamber to be less than that of the anterior chamber. Eyes with iris retraction syndrome have extensive posterior synechiae preventing free flow of anterior chamber fluid into the posterior chamber.
    • During routine phacoemulsification, posterior movement of the lens-iris diaphragm during the irrigation at the time of insertion of the phacoemulsification handpiece may be in part caused by a rapid increase in anterior chamber volume, which forces the iris against the lens surface. Because of this flap-valve effect, fluid cannot move into the posterior chamber, and the entire lens-iris diaphragm may move posteriorly.
  • Lid blinking may have a prominent contributory influence on iris configuration, and, thus, on the distribution of aqueous humor in the anterior segment.
    • In 1994, Chew proposed that a blink initially deforms the cornea, transiently increasing IOP (in both the anterior and posterior chambers), and pushes the iris posteriorly against the lens.[9] Immediately following the blink, pressure within the posterior chamber exceeds that of the anterior chamber and a small aliquot of aqueous moves into the anterior chamber along this pressure gradient. This causes the anterior chamber pressure to exceed that of the posterior chamber for a brief period. This momentary pressure gradient causes the iris to become concave and push it against the lens, preventing aqueous from flowing back into the posterior chamber (reverse pupillary block). The presence of cornea deformation during blinking has been reported in animal studies.
    • Increased iridolenticular contact and myopia, both present in pigment dispersion syndrome, appear to enhance the flap-valve effect of iris-lens contact, which helps to prevent equilibration of pressure between the 2 chambers. In non–pigment dispersion syndrome eyes, this reverse pupillary block mechanism is less complete and less able to maintain the pressure differential.
    • When blinking is prevented, aqueous secretion gradually increases the volume of the posterior chamber. As the volume and the pressure of the posterior chamber increase relative to the anterior chamber, the iris gradually flattens, iridolenticular contact diminishes, and iridozonular and iridociliary process distances increase.
  • A concave iris configuration indistinguishable from that associated with pigment dispersion syndrome can be induced by accommodation in young, healthy individuals. During accommodation, contraction of the ciliary ring causes the lens to move forward slightly, which shallows the anterior chamber. The displaced aqueous cannot move into the posterior chamber because of the flap-valve effect; therefore, it is forced into the angle recess. Aqueous humor, now trapped in the anterior chamber, is forced into the angle recess and the peripheral iris assumes a concave configuration. This process is similar to the change in iris and angle configuration, which occurs during indentation gonioscopy.
  • Pharmacologic pupillary dilation may result in marked pigment liberation accompanied by a rise in IOP. The same phenomenon may occur in some patients with pigment dispersion syndrome during strenuous exercise, particularly exercise involving jarring movements, such as jogging or basketball. Pretreatment with low-dose pilocarpine prior to exercise can limit both the pigment liberation and the IOP spike. Laser iridectomy (see Surgical Care) may not completely eliminate exercise-induced pigment liberation.
Contributor Information and Disclosures

Yaniv Barkana, MD Consulting Staff, Glaucoma Unit, Department of Ophthalmology, Assaf Harofe Medical Center

Yaniv Barkana, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Israeli Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Robert Ritch, MD Shelley and Steven Einhorn Distinguished Chair in Ophthalmology, Chief of Glaucoma Service, Surgeon Director, Professor, Department of Ophthalmology, New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, New York Medical College

Robert Ritch, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Ophthalmology, American College of Surgeons, American Medical Association, American Ophthalmological Society, Chinese American Medical Society, International College of Surgeons, New York Academy of Medicine, New York Academy of Sciences

Disclosure: Received none from Sensimed for board membership; Received none from iSonic Medical for board membership; Received consulting fee from Aeon Astron for consulting; Received honoraria from Pfizer for speaking and teaching; Received honoraria from Allergan for speaking and teaching; Received honoraria from Ministry of Health of Kuwait for speaking and teaching; Received honoraria from Aeon Astron for speaking and teaching; Received royalty from Ocular Instruments for other.

Specialty Editor Board

Simon K Law, MD, PharmD Clinical Professor of Health Sciences, Department of Ophthalmology, Jules Stein Eye Institute, University of California, Los Angeles, David Geffen School of Medicine

Simon K Law, MD, PharmD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Ophthalmology, Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, American Glaucoma Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Martin B Wax, MD Professor, Department of Ophthalmology, University of Texas Southwestern Medical School; Vice President, Research and Development, Head, Ophthalmology Discovery Research and Preclinical Sciences, Alcon Laboratories, Inc

Martin B Wax, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Ophthalmology, American Glaucoma Society, Society for Neuroscience

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Hampton Roy, Sr, MD Associate Clinical Professor, Department of Ophthalmology, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences

Hampton Roy, Sr, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Ophthalmology, American College of Surgeons, Pan-American Association of Ophthalmology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Andrew I Rabinowitz, MD Director of Glaucoma Service, Barnet Dulaney Perkins Eye Center

Andrew I Rabinowitz, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Aerospace Medical Association, American Academy of Ophthalmology, American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery, American Academy of Ophthalmology, American Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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To record changes in the pigmentation of the iris, the illumination beam must be directed coaxially through the pupil so that the retinal reflection appears in areas denuded of pigment granules. This transillumination photograph shows the sectoral defects associated with pigmentary glaucoma.
Goniography uses diagnostic mirrored contact lenses to overcome corneal refraction and to permit visualization of the filtration angle. The pigment liberated from the iris in pigmentary glaucoma is shown in the angle, clogging the trabecular meshwork and impeding aqueous outflow.
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