Elevated blood sugar levels can damage many organs of the body, including the eyes. Some common diabetes eye problems include cataracts, diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma.
Diabetic retinopathy is the most common, and the most serious of all eye complications of diabetes. ORBIS International reports that 5 million people worldwide have diabetic retinopathy, accounting for 5 percent of cases of blindness. Approximately 40 to 45 percent of diabetics have some stage of diabetic retinopathy, according to the National Eye Institute.
Understanding Diabetic Retinopathy
Diabetic retinopathy occurs when high blood sugar levels damage the tiny blood vessels at the back of the eye. Both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetics can develop diabetic retinopathy.
The condition usually causes diabetic retinopathy symptoms in both eyes. In some cases, blood vessels in the eye may swell and leak fluid, while other patients grow abnormal new blood vessels on the retina’s surface.
The more you control your blood sugar levels, the lower your risk of developing diabetes eye problems such as diabetic retinopathy. Long-time diabetics have greater chances of getting diabetic retinopathy.
Diabetic Retinopathy Symptoms
In its early stages, diabetic retinopathy symptoms are often nonexistent: Many people have the condition without even knowing. In advanced stages, however, diabetic retinopathy symptoms may include:
- Blurred vision
- Dark or empty spots in vision
- Floaters (specks, webs or strings you may see when you move your eyes)
- Fluctuating vision
- Impaired color vision
- Poor night vision
- Vision loss.
Diagnosing Diabetic Retinopathy
If you have diabetes, doctors recommend yearly eye exams to screen for diabetic retinopathy and other diabetes eye problems. In addition to testing your vision and eye pressure, your doctor will check for:
- Abnormal blood vessels
- Bleeding in the eye’s center
- Cataracts (cloudy covering of the eye lens)
- Detachment of the retinas
- Growth of new blood vessels
- Optic nerve abnormalities
- Scar tissue.
Depending on your eye health, your doctor may also perform additional tests to screen for eye complications of diabetes:
- Fluorescein angiography: Your doctor will dilate your pupils and take photos of the inside of your eyes. He’ll inject a dye into your arm and take more photos once the dye reaches the eyes’ blood vessels to identify broken, closed or leaky vessels in the eyes.
- Optical coherence tomography: This imaging procedure shows the thickness of the retina in order to diagnose eye complications of diabetes.
Prevention and Treatment
Fortunately, diabetes doesn’t always lead to poor vision. In order to lower your risk of diabetic retinopathy and other diabetes eye problems:
- Don’t smoke or use tobacco products
- Manage blood sugar levels with diet, exercise and medication as prescribed
- Manage blood pressure and cholesterol levels
- Monitor blood sugar regularly and adjust your diabetic plan when necessary.
Report any changes in vision to your doctor immediately: Catching problems early may prevent vision loss. Early stages of diabetic retinopathy may improve with better blood sugar management. Advanced diabetic retinopathy typically requires surgical treatment such as:
- Focal laser treatment: Your doctor makes several hundred laser burns in the retina to slow fluid leakage.
- Scatter laser treatment: Your doctor makes over a thousand laser burns in the retina to shrink abnormal blood vessels in the eye.
- Vitrectomy: Blood-filled vitreous, or gel within the eye, is removed, and a clear solution is injected to restore clear sight.
Mayo Clinic. (2010). Diabetic retinopathy. Retrieved April 19, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/diabetic-retinopathy/DS00447.
National Eye Institute. (2010). Facts about diabetic eye disease. Retrieved April 19, 2010, from http://www.nei.nih.gov/health/diabetic/retinopathy.asp.
ORBIS. (n.d.). Diabetic Retinopathy. Retrieved April 19, 2010, from http://www.orbis.org/Default.aspx?cid=5611