Diabetes and Your Eyes: Understanding Diabetic Retinopathy

If you (or a loved one) have diabetes, you know that the disease affects the body’s ability to produce or use insulin effectively to control blood sugar (glucose) levels. Over time, this excess glucose can damage vital organs of the body, including the eyes. Even when the disease is well-controlled, people with diabetes should get annual eye exams before noticing any signs of vision loss. Unfortunately, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, studies show that 60% of diabetics are not getting the exams their doctors recommend.

What is Diabetic Retinopathy?
Diabetic retinopathy (DR) is one of several eye problems that can result from diabetes. It develops when high blood sugar levels damage blood vessels in the retina. These blood vessels can swell and leak, or they can close, stopping blood from passing through. Sometimes abnormal new blood vessels grow on the retina. All of these changes can steal your vision.

Risk Factors
Anyone who has diabetes can develop diabetic retinopathy. However, your risk may increase as a result of:

  • Having diabetes for a long time
  • Poor control of your blood sugar level
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Pregnancy
  • Tobacco use
  • Being Black, Hispanic, or Native American

Note: Developing diabetes when pregnant (gestational diabetes) or having diabetes before becoming pregnant can increase your risk of DR. If you’re pregnant, your eye doctor might recommend additional eye exams throughout your pregnancy.

Will I know if I have DR?
Diabetic retinopathy often has no symptoms in its early stages. As DR gets worse, you will notice symptoms such as:

  • Seeing an increasing number of floaters
  • Blurry vision
  • Vision that changes sometimes from blurry to clear
  • Blank or dark areas in your field of vision
  • Poor night vision
  • Noticing colors appear faded or washed out
  • Losing vision

Diabetic retinopathy symptoms usually affect both eyes.

DR sounds pretty scary
Of course, any condition that can damage our eyesight is scary. But the good news is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that about 90% of vision loss from diabetes can be prevented. Early detection is key. That’s why it’s critical that anyone with any type of diabetes sees their ophthalmologist regularly for dilated eye exams before any vision problems start.

And, as we give thanks for the blessings of family and friends this month, let’s take a moment to be thankful for medical knowledge on managing diabetes and protecting vision – as we’ll discuss in our next Atlantic Eye blog!