As many as 45 percent of people with diabetes may have a condition known as diabetic retinopathy, a degenerative eye disease that may cause permanent vision loss. Doctors often call diabetic retinopathy a silent symptom of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Why? because patients often don’t realize they have this disease until they experience severe vision loss.
People with diabetic retinopathy have increased risks of more serious conditions, so doctors recommend people with diabetes undergo regular screenings because it could help catch a problem before their condition worsens and becomes more serious. Luckily, diabetic retinopathy is treatable and preventable.
Over many years, consistently high blood glucose levels can damage, or even block, the tiny blood vessels that lead to the retina, which is the part of the eye that senses how much light enters the organ. The eye compensates by growing new blood vessels, but these grow irregularly and can swell. These irregular blood vessels in the eye can then start to leak, which may cause less light to reach the retina. If left untreated, diabetic retinopathy has the potential to cause severe vision loss or blindness.
Before more serious symptoms develop, diabetic retinopathy patients may notice other things happening to their vision. Some may see spots or floaters within the field of vision or develop a blurrier vision. Night sight can also worsen for people with diabetic retinopathy, according to the American Optometric Association.
In addition to vision loss, people with diabetic retinopathy could have other complications of diabetes elsewhere in their bodies. Patients with this eye disease are twice as likely to develop coronary heart disease compared to people with Type 2 diabetes who do not exhibit symptoms of retinopathy. People who suffer from diabetic retinopathy are also three times as likely to have fatal coronary heart disease than those with Type 2 diabetes and no signs of retinopathy.
Four Stages of Diabetic Retinopathy
Diabetic retinopathy has four distinct stages as the disease progresses. The mild stage occurs when small vessels in the retina swell to a larger size. When the moderate stage happens, the blood vessels lose their ability to transport blood to the retina. With severe diabetic retinopathy, blood vessels become blocked and the eye begins to grow new blood vessels to compensate. The fourth, and worst stage, is called proliferative diabetic retinopathy. The National Eye Institute says this stage occurs when new blood vessels form. These new blood vessels may leak and cause scar tissue, the detachment of the retina from the back of the eye, and permanent vision loss.
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Treatment options depend on the stage of diabetic retinopathy. Patients with mild or moderate forms of the disease may just need better blood sugar control to slow its progress. In severe stages, doctors may prescribe injectable drugs that prevent a protein in the eye from damaging blood vessels. If drugs don’t work, laser surgery can seal blood vessels and prevent new ones from forming. An eye surgeon sometimes performs a vitrectomy to remove some of the vitreous fluid in the eye, especially if it has a lot of blood in it, which prevents patients from seeing properly.
Preventing This Eye Disease
Luckily for people with diabetes, diabetic retinopathy is completely preventable before even mild symptoms occur. If you have diabetes, make sure you undergo yearly screenings with a dilated eye examination regardless of any symptoms associated with vision. Always follow your doctor’s advice in terms of medication, diet, exercise, and controlling high blood pressure to prevent diabetic retinopathy. Aside from diabetic retinopathy, people with diabetes have a 40 percent chance of developing glaucoma and are 60 percent more likely to develop cataracts.