The Dangers of Diabetic Retinopathy
More than 100 million Americans are living with diabetes. Over 84 million more have prediabetes. These statistics seem staggering, but so is the list of possible complications from diabetes. Individuals with diabetes face an increased risk for heart attack, stroke, nerve pain and damage, hearing impairment, kidney failure, and even Alzheimer’s ― and that’s not even a comprehensive list.
As such a complex list of possible complications reflects, diabetes is a systemic condition, affecting numerous areas of the body at once. At its core, diabetes occurs when the body either becomes deficient in insulin or develops insulin resistance. Insulin is the sugar-processing hormone; without the right levels of insulin, glucose builds up in the bloodstream. High levels of sugar in the bloodstream can damage nerves and blood vessels. The longer blood sugar levels are elevated, the worse the symptoms and complications get.
WHAT IS DIABETIC RETINOPATHY?
Diabetic blood vessel damage is especially harmful in areas of the body where blood vessels are small and delicate. Our eyes have a large number of tiny, fragile blood vessels, and the retina (a thin layer of cells at the back of the eye that transmits light signals to the brain) is especially prone to blood vessel damage from diabetes. Over time, diabetes increases the chances that retinal blood vessels will weaken, leak and bleed. When they do, vision becomes blurry or distorted. Eventually, blindness can occur.
This damage to the small blood vessels of the retina and the resulting vision issues are known as diabetic retinopathy. All people with diabetes are at risk for this serious complication. Among diabetic individuals, an estimated 40-45% already have some degree of diabetic retinopathy, though only about half are aware of their condition.
SYMPTOMS OF DIABETIC RETINOPATHY
In the US, diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness among adults aged 25-74. Unfortunately, early symptoms are rare, so eyes are often damaged before treatment is sought. It’s common for diabetic retinopathy to go unnoticed by an individual until vision is irreversibly impacted.
As diabetic retinopathy progresses, individuals may notice “floating spots” in their field of vision. These distortions are caused by abnormal retinal bleeding or hemorrhaging. Alternately, vision may become cloudy, blurry or otherwise altered. Any changes in vision should be evaluated immediately by an optometrist. Prompt treatment may not undo the damage that has already occurred, but a proactive approach can help preserve remaining vision.
TREATMENT FOR DIABETIC RETINOPATHY
Treatment for diabetic retinopathy includes both medical solutions and lifestyle changes. Initially, your eye doctor will conduct a comprehensive dilated eye exam that tests eyesight and eye pressure while checking for nerve damage, leaky blood vessels, and early warning signs like fatty deposits in the eye.
If leaky vessels are found, your optometrist may suggest a laser procedure to clear the affected areas and seal off blood vessel leaks. In more advanced cases, a procedure called a vitrectomy may be used to remove scar tissue, blood and cloudy fluid from the inside of the eye. Combined with follow-up care, these surgeries can reduce the chances of total blindness by up to 90%.
That said, surgical procedures are not a total solution. To prevent the disease from worsening, those with diabetic retinopathy must also work to keep their diabetes in check. Smoking cigarettes significantly worsens diabetes symptoms, so diabetics should also refrain from smoking. Finally, diabetic patients with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or who are overweight or obese are also at higher risk. Eating a healthy, low-sugar diet and maintaining an active lifestyle are essential to long-term health.