If you are one of the 29.1 million people living with diabetes, eye care is an extremely important part of your treatment and management plan. People with diabetes are especially at risk of suffering from diabetic eye diseases, particularly diabetic retinopathy, which is the most common cause of vision loss among individuals living with diabetes.
About Diabetic Retinopathy
Diabetic retinopathy is an eye disease that affects individuals with diabetes. It’s a slow-acting condition that damages the retina of the eye; as a result, diabetic retinopathy usually affects patients who have lived with diabetes for many years. Without treatment, the cumulative damage from diabetic retinopathy may result in blindness.
Causes Of Diabetic Retinopathy
The eye is at risk of complications of diabetes due to the nature of the illness. Diabetes affects the body’s ability to use and store sugar, and without proper management, sugar levels in the bloodstream elevate. These higher sugar levels can ultimately cause damage to our blood vessels, as they can weaken the walls of the blood vessels.
Since our eyes and retina rely on a healthy blood supply to function, any damage to the blood vessels within them can affect our vision. Weakened blood vessels often leak blood or a fatty fluid into the retina area, resulting in swelling or vision problems within the eye. Since the retina detects light and converts it into signals that are sent through the optic nerve to the brain - where said light is translated by the brain into an image for us to process - any damage or interference with it is likely to at least result in some distortion of vision, if not full-on blindness.
Effects Of Diabetic Retinopathy
Patients that are dealing with diabetic retinopathy are likely to suffer a range of complications. Some examples of the effects on vision include:
- Swelling of the macula. The macula is a specific spot within the retina that helps our eyes create sharp images in our central field of vision; any damage to the macula is likely to create vision problems. In diabetics, as the blood vessels leak fluid, the macula begins to swell. This swelling effect has its own name: Diabetic macular edema (DME).
- Vitreous Hemorrhage. Sometimes diabetics grow extra blood vessels which are particularly weak. In many cases, these weakened vessels leak. If the leaks and fluid build-up grows severe enough, this will cause a sudden loss of vision or create lots of new floaters.
- Loss of vision. Complete loss of vision is a possible side effect from advanced diabetic retinopathy, as by this stage scar tissue and long-term weakening of the blood vessels may result in a full retinal detachment.
Preventing & Addressing Diabetic Retinopathy
The good news is that with proper detection and treatment, patients are unlikely to suffer from permanent effects of diabetic retinopathy. There are several things that can be done to prevent and address diabetic retinopathy:
- If possible, a patient should take steps to minimize their risk of developing diabetes.
- If you are already living with the condition, you should report this to your eye doctor immediately, and should also make sure you never miss an annual eye exam. Comprehensive eye exams are the only way you can be sure that any early signs of diabetic retinopathy will be caught and treated. Remember, the condition does not always present with initial symptoms - and you will feel no pain to tell you that something is wrong as it develops. Only by scheduling an eye exam will you ensure that your doctor diagnoses the problem before irreversible damage sets in.
- Properly working with your primary care doctor to manage your diabetes and glucose levels through exercise, proper diet, and medications (if necessary) will also help in minimizing the effects or development of diabetic retinopathy. The tighter the control of your blood sugar, the lower your risk of severe complications and blindness will be.
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