Diabetes is becoming increasingly prevalent in the American population. As more people are diagnosed with the disease, more are facing the sight-threatening risk of diabetic retinopathy. Diabetic retinopathy, which affects the retina, or the light-detecting tissue in the back of the eye, is one of the leading causes of blindness in our country. Though the disease has the potential to be very dangerous and blinding, proper diagnoses, treatment, and management of diabetic retinopathy significantly reduces the risks of vision loss. By working with your eye care provider, primary care doctor, and endocrinologist, cases of diabetic retinopathy can be treated, or even prevented.
What is Diabetic Retinopathy?
In diabetes, long-term elevations in blood sugar levels causes damage to blood vessels throughout the body. Smaller fragile vessels are usually the first to be affected by diabetes, meaning the delicate blood vessels that supply the eye with blood and nutrients are particularly at risk for diabetic damage. In diabetic retinopathy, these retinal vessels begin showing signs of damage that can be observed during a dilated eye evaluation. The signs of diabetic retinopathy can range from mild to severe and sight-threatening. In mild diabetic retinopathy, there may only be small areas of blood leakage, causing tiny hemorrhages to be visible in the retina. As the disease progresses, there can be areas of ischemia, where the retina is not getting enough blood flow, or areas where blood vessels are leaking blood and proteins which results in retinal swelling. If these signs of diabetic retinopathy occur in the macula, or the part of the retina which is responsible for providing us with clear central vision, then significant visual changes can occur. The most severe cases of diabetic retinopathy can result in weak new blood vessels attempting to form. These new blood vessels continue to leak and have the potential to cause even further damage, from a retinal detachment to a large hemorrhage.
Treating Diabetic Retinopathy
Diabetic retinopathy can have symptoms, such as fluctuating visual changes or blurred vision, but many times the condition goes unnoticed until it is very severe. Diabetics should receive annual eye examinations, including a thorough retinal evaluation, to make sure no diabetic retinopathy is present. If diabetic changes are noticed in the eye, the appropriate measures can be taken. Many mild cases of diabetic retinopathy do not warrant immediate action; treatment may simply include monitoring the condition to ensure no further problems arise. In cases where significant retinal swelling has occurred, or a substantial threat to vision is present, a referral to an ophthalmologist may be necessary so injections or laser treatment can potentially prevent vision loss. In any case of diabetic retinopathy, the primary care doctor should be informed so any appropriate systemic treatment changes can be made.
Decreasing Your Risk
When it comes to your risk of developing diabetic retinopathy, there are two main factors that play a role: how long you have been diagnosed with diabetes, and how well the disease is controlled. In poorly controlled diabetes, the blood vessels are more significantly affected and the risk of diabetic retinopathy is increased. Additionally, the longer you have had diabetes, the more likely you are to have some degree of retinopathy. By maintaining proper blood sugar control and visiting your optometrist for your annual diabetic eye examinations, you can take important steps to significantly reduce your risk of vision loss from diabetic retinopathy.