Everything You Need to Know About Diabetic Eye Disease
November is National Diabetes Awareness month, an important time to shed light on diabetic eye disease. We’ve rounded up all the information you need about the condition, as well as how to prevent it from happening altogether.
Diabetic retinopathy — one of the potential consequences of diabetic eye disease — may not have any symptoms at first, so finding it early can help you take steps to protect your vision.
What is diabetic retinopathy?
Simply put, diabetic retinopathy is a complication associated with diabetes that directly impacts the eyes. The condition is caused by damage to the blood vessels, which can lead to blindness if left untreated. The disease can develop in any diabetes patient, regardless of what type they have. The longer a person has the disease, the more likely they are to develop the condition.
What causes it?
The reason diabetes can sometimes lead to eye complications is because over time, an excessive level of sugar in your blood can damage the inner walls of blood vessels causing leakages or blockages leading to an under oxygenated retina. Naturally, your eyes react by trying to grow new blood vessels, which may not develop properly and can result in further leaking.
The condition manifests in two forms: early diabetic retinopathy (more common) and advanced diabetic retinopathy.
- Early diabetic retinopathy: Also called non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy (NDPR), this form of diabetic retinopathy occurs due to the aforementioned blood vessel damage. This occurs before the growth of the new, fragile, blood vessels. Sometimes, the condition can result in built-up fluid in the retina, and systemic treatment of the diabetes, and any concomitant conditions like high blood pressure.
- Advanced diabetic retinopathy: As its name suggests, advanced diabetic retinopathy is more severe and is commonly called proliferative diabetic retinopathy. Unlike early diabetic retinopathy, in which new blood vessels don’t proliferate, advanced diabetic retinopathy can cause the growth of new atypical blood vessels in the retina, which can create scar tissue. Ultimately, this can cause the retina to detach, leading to glaucoma.
Beyond having diabetes, there are several other factors that can increase a person’s risk of developing diabetic retinopathy.
Risk factors include:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Tobacco use
- Poor control of blood sugar levels
Signs and symptoms
One of the central challenges with diabetic retinopathy is that it’s not always easy to identify in the early stages of the condition. As it progresses, however, common symptoms include:
- Blurred vision
- Changing vision
- Dark or empty areas in your vision
- Spots or dark strings (floaters)
- Vision loss
Possible risks and complications
As noted above, if left untreated, diabetic retinopathy can lead to major eye problems. Some serious complications include:
- Retinal detachment: The growth of scar tissue can eventually destabilize the retina from the back of the eye. The first sign of retinal detachment is small spots floating in your vision, flashes of light, or vision loss.
- Glaucoma: Diabetic retinopathy can cause pressure to build in the eye (particularly as new blood vessels form), which can aggravate the optic nerve, and lead to permanent blind spots/vision loss aka glaucoma.
- Vitreous hemorrhage: This occurs when new blood vessels create fluid that fills the centre of the eye, creating dark spots and blocked vision.
- Blindness: Unfortunately, if diabetic retinopathy is not properly managed, partial or total vision loss is possible.
Protection and prevention
The good news is, it is possible to prevent diabetic retinopathy and stop it from advancing rapidly if you already have it. For starters, ensuring you book regular eye exams (especially if you already have diabetes) and managing your blood sugar and blood pressure levels are all critical ways to treat and prevent diabetic retinopathy.
There are numerous additional steps you can take to dramatically reduce your risk of developing the condition, particularly if you have diabetes:
- Be active: Physical activity is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. Making sure you get 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week will help manage your diabetes, thereby reducing your risk of developing diabetic retinopathy.
- Manage your medication: Staying on top of your medicinal protocol—whether that’s taking oral diabetes medications or insulin—is critical in order to avoid diabetic retinopathy.
- Control your cholesterol: Nourishing your body with clean foods and keeping your body at a healthy weight will reduce your risk of developing diabetic retinopathy. Beyond keeping your cholesterol levels under control, eating well will also help manage your blood pressure—another key factor in preventing diabetic retinopathy.
- Monitor your blood sugar level: Those with diabetes know the importance of managing blood sugar. In order to dodge diabetic retinopathy, check your level several times per day, and even more often if you’re not feeling well.
- Quit smoking: Using tobacco is unhealthy for a slew of reasons, not the least of which is that it increases your odds of developing diabetic retinopathy and other complications. We urge you to stop smoking, as it can lead to various health issues.
- Pay attention to your sight: Be aware of your eye health, and ensure that you contact your doctor immediately if you notice any floaters, spots, or vision changes.
The main message
Of course, we can’t always control our luck as far as our health goes, but we can certainly improve our odds of having good eye health for life.
Being diagnosed with diabetes does not necessarily mean you will experience vision loss, which is why we strongly encourage patients to actively manage their health in order to prevent eye conditions from developing in the future.
If you have concerns about your eye health as a diabetic and want to schedule an appointment, contact us.