Are You at Risk for Diabetic Retinopathy?

Between monitoring blood sugar levels and inspecting for foot damage, people with diabetes have a lot to juggle when it comes to chronic disease management. It’s no wonder, then, that subtle changes in vision often go undetected.

Diabetic retinopathy occurs when elevated blood sugar damages the tiny blood vessels that feed the retina, or light-sensitive tissue in the eye. Over time, these vessels can leak fluids and cause retinal tissue to swell, clouding one’s vision and eventually causing blindness.

As the most common diabetic eye disease and a leading cause of blindness in American adults, diabetic retinopathy affects 40 to 45 percent of diabetes sufferers—at a rate that’s expected to nearly double between 2010 and 2050, from 7.7 million cases to 14.6 million. Signs of diabetic retinopathy can include:

  • Seeing spots or floaters.
  • Blurred vision.
  • A dark or empty spot in the center of vision.
  • Difficulty seeing well at night.

Unfortunately, these signs often are not present in the early stages, which is why only about half of patients who have it notice any symptoms. Early detection and treatment can be pivotal in reducing the risk of significant vision loss, which is why the American Optometric Association recommends annual eye exams for all diabetes patients as part of their chronic disease management.


Detecting and Treating Diabetic Retinopathy

Early detection and treatment of diabetic retinopathy can reduce the risk of blindness by 95 percent. To determine whether a patient is developing this serious eye condition, a doctor must conduct a comprehensive eye exam. This can include:

  • Examining the patient’s history to determine the extent of vision difficulties and possible causes.
  • Measuring visual acuity to determine how much the eyesight has been affected.
  • Assessing the need for changes in eyeglass prescription.
  • Evaluating the retina and other parts of the eye through the dilated pupil.
  • Measuring pressure within the eye.
  • Documenting the retina’s current state with retinal photography or tomography.
  • Evaluating abnormal blood vessel growth via fluorescein angiography.

Treatment of the disease depends on the extent of damage to the eyes. Doctors may need to perform laser surgery to seal leaky blood vessels or reinforce weakening ones. Medication injected into the eyes can help reduce inflammation. In more serious cases, a patient may need surgery to remove and replace the gel-like fluid in the back of the eye or to repair a retinal detachment.


How to Protect Your Eyesight

In addition to getting regular eye exams, patients with diabetes can ward off blindness by diligently:

  • Taking prescribed medications.
  • Keeping blood glucose levels as close to normal as possible.
  • Controlling elevated blood pressure and cholesterol.
  • Avoiding alcohol and smoking.
  • Maintaining a healthy diet and getting exercise.

Diabetes doesn’t have to cost patients their eyesight. By making eye care a regular part of their chronic disease management, people who have diabetes can limit vision loss and keep their eyes functioning well into the future.


Photo by National Eye Institute via CC License