We depend on our eyes. We need them for driving, for reading, and even for communicating as we look at each other’s faces to interpret meaning. So much of our world is experienced through our vision.
If you have diabetes, you might worry about the future of your eyes. Diabetes can cause several serious eye complications, and it may be tempting to just ignore your eye health and hope for the best. It’s true that diabetes can damage the eyes and will increase the risk for blindness, but it’s far from being a foregone conclusion that someone with diabetes will have major vision problems.
Most people with diabetes have only minor eye problems or none at all, and if bigger problems do develop, there are usually effective treatments available. Of course, the most effective treatment is prevention. So let’s talk about how the eyes work, what can go wrong, and most importantly, how to keep them healthy.
How Eyes Work 101
When light first enters the eye, it travels through an outer membrane (what you touch if you stick your finger in your eye). This membrane is called the cornea. The light then passes through the anterior chamber (which is filled with protective fluid called aqueous humor) and then through the pupil.
After that, the light hits the lens right behind your pupil. The lens focuses the light as it continues through the main chamber of your eyeball (also filled with protective fluid) until it reaches the back of your eye, the retina. The retina converts images into electrical signals that are sent to your brain through the optic nerve. Then your brain decodes the signals and lets you know what you are looking at. The eye is an amazing organ!
But sometimes, things don’t work out perfectly. Here are the complications that those with diabetes are at risk for:
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Those with diabetes are 40% more likely to develop glaucoma than those without—it just isn’t fair! Glaucoma risk increases with age and the length of time someone has had diabetes. Family history is also a risk factor.
Glaucoma is caused by pressure building up in your eyes. The aqueous humor is the fluid right behind your cornea that keeps your eye in the proper shape so that you can see. This fluid flows in and out in balance, but if the balance is disrupted and not enough fluid drains, fluid will build up in the eye. This pressure can damage the optic nerve and start to kill nerve fibers. Blind spots will develop and, if left unchecked, a person will lose their vision. Glaucoma usually begins by narrowing a person’s field of vision.
There are usually no symptoms in the beginning stages of glaucoma, which is why frequent eye doctor visits are so important. There are multiple treatment options for glaucoma, but of course they are most effective when the disease is caught early.
People with diabetes are 60% more likely to develop cataracts than those without. A cataract is a cloudy or opaque area that develops on the lens of the eye and causes blurry vision, reduced color intensity, increased sensitivity to light, and difficulty seeing at night.
If the lens is blocked or cloudy due to cataracts, it cannot focus light onto your retina properly. For people with severe cataracts, an eye lens transplant may be an option.
Retinopathy, as you may have guessed, affects the retina at the back of the eye. In the beginning stage, called nonproliferative retinopathy, tiny blood vessels at the back of the eye swell and form pouches. The damaged blood vessels become weakened and may leak. If retinopathy progresses into proliferative retinopathy, some blood vessels close off and new ones begin to grow on the retina. These abnormal blood vessels can leak and block vision.
4. Macular Edema
Retinopathy can contribute to the development of macular edema. When the blood vessels leak into the macula (the part of the retina where additional focusing occurs), the macula swells with fluid. This means that the eye’s ability to focus is compromised, resulting in blurred vision. The good news is that there are treatments that are usually effective. So again, be sure to let your eye doctor know if you are having an unusual vision issues.
Now that you’re motivated to avoid these complications, let’s talk about what we can do to keep our eyes in the best health possible!