You have almost certainly heard of diabetes, which is one of the most common chronic health conditions in the United States with an estimated 100 million adults currently living with diabetes or pre-diabetes. This metabolic disorder occurs when the body is no longer able to regulate its own blood sugar levels and requires intervention to keep them stable. Most people are aware that diabetes can have serious consequences for our health. However, you may be surprised to learn that it can also influence our vision. This is because patients who are diabetic can go on to develop a complication that is known as diabetic retinopathy. Without prompt treatment, diabetic retinopathy can cause permanent vision loss. It is for this reason that patients who suffer from diabetes are asked to attend regular diabetic-related eye exams.
For us to be able to see clearly, our eyes need to be healthy and functioning perfectly. The most important component of our eyes is the retina. Found at the very back of the eye, the retina is a patch of light-sensitive cells that have the job of converting the light that passes into the eye into messages that are passed up the optic nerve and into our brain. Our brain then receives them and tells us what we can see and how clearly we can see it.
Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes that results in damage to the retina. The retina relies on a continuous supply of blood, which is delivered using a network of tiny blood vessels. In diabetic retinopathy, these small blood vessels that supply blood to the retina become damaged and leak and even rupture. Over time, this causes damage to the retina in much the same way that a leaky pipe in your home would cause damage to the walls and floor. If this happens, scarring may occur which could compromise the quality of your vision.
Technically, anyone who suffers from diabetes, whether it be Type 1 or Type 2, could be at risk of developing diabetic retinopathy. However, the condition is more likely in certain situations. These include if:
Regular diabetic-related eye exams will enable your eye doctor to monitor your condition and ensure that any signs of diabetic retinopathy are detected and acted upon immediately.
Diabetic retinopathy is a very serious complication of diabetes and is the leading cause of blindness in Americans under the age of 65. A comprehensive eye examination including photos of the retina and dilation of the eyes is very effective at catching this disease in the early stages.
The degree of retinopathy due to diabetes will determine how frequently you will need to be monitored. Early stages of diabetic retinopathy have few symptoms but can easily be detected in a thorough eye examination and is usually monitored yearly, but may require more frequent visits. Later stages of the disease can include symptoms of missing spots in your vision, poor acuity (blurry vision even with glasses), and hazy vision or color vision changes.
There are treatments for diabetic retinopathy, the most common of which is laser photocoagulation. Laser treatment involves sealing off the leaking blood vessels to stop them from bleeding, but the most effective treatment is actually good management of your blood sugar and coordination of care with your diabetic doctor (endocrinologist or family physician). Diabetes is a disease that can be managed very effectively with proper diet and exercise and is a disease where you can play a very important role in management of the disease.