Diabetes interferes with the body’s ability to use and store sugar (glucose). The disease is characterized by too much sugar in the blood, which can cause damage throughout the body, including the eyes. Diabetic retinopathy is a serious sight-threatening complication that occurs in people who have diabetes. It causes progressive damage to the retina, the light-sensitive lining at the back of the eye.
Over time, diabetes damages the blood vessels in the retina. Diabetic retinopathy occurs when these tiny blood vessels leak blood and other fluids. This causes the retinal tissue to swell, resulting in cloudy or blurred vision. The condition usually affects both eyes. The longer a person has diabetes, the more likely they will develop diabetic retinopathy. If left untreated, diabetic retinopathy can cause blindness.
Symptoms of diabetic retinopathy include:
- Seeing spots or floaters
- Blurred vision
- Having a dark or empty spot in the center of your vision
- Difficulty seeing well at night
When people with diabetes experience long periods of high blood sugar, fluid can accumulate in the lens inside the eye that controls focusing. This changes the curvature of the lens, leading to blurred vision. However, once blood sugar levels are controlled, blurred distance vision will improve. Patients with diabetes who can better control their blood sugar levels will slow the onset and progression of diabetic retinopathy.
The early stages of diabetic retinopathy usually have no symptoms. The disease often progresses unnoticed until it affects vision. Bleeding from abnormal retinal blood vessels can cause the appearance of “floating” spots. These spots sometimes clear on their own. But without prompt treatment, bleeding often recurs, increasing the risk of permanent vision loss.
Treatment of diabetic retinopathy varies depending on the extent of the disease. People with diabetic retinopathy may need laser surgery to seal leaking blood vessels or to discourage other blood vessels from leaking. People with advanced cases of diabetic retinopathy might need a surgical procedure to remove and replace the gel-like fluid in the back of the eye, called the vitreous. Surgery may also be needed to repair a retinal detachment. This is a separation of the light-receiving lining in the back of the eye.
Vision lost to diabetic retinopathy is sometimes irreversible. However, early detection and treatment can reduce the risk of blindness by 95 percent. Because diabetic retinopathy often lacks early symptoms, people with diabetes should get a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once a year. People with diabetic retinopathy may need eye exams more frequently.
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