Diabetes is a disease that affects blood vessels throughout the body, particularly vessels in the kidneys and eyes. Patients with diabetes are at a higher risk of developing eye conditions as a complication of their disease. Diabetic-related eye problems develop from high blood sugar levels, which can cause damage to blood vessels. When diabetes affects the blood vessels in the eyes, it is called diabetic retinopathy.
What Is Diabetic Retinopathy?
Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes. The longer a person has diabetes the higher the chance they will develop diabetic retinopathy. Diabetic retinopathy is the most common diabetic eye complication and specifically affects the blood vessels in the retina. The retina, located in the back of the eye, detects visual images and transmits them to the brain. When diabetes damages the retinal blood vessels they weaken, swell and leak. This results in a loss of vision and the ability to detect and transmit images. More than 40% of diabetics in the United States have some form of diabetic retinopathy which is the leading cause of blindness in America adults.
As diabetic retinopathy develops new blood vessels grow. These new vessels are your body’s attempt to overcome and replace the vessels that have been damaged by diabetes. However, these new vessels are not normal and may bleed, cause the vision to become hazy, and occasionally result in a complete loss of vision. In addition, abnormal blood vessels on the iris can lead to glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy can also cause the formation of cataracts.
Diabetic Retinopathy Symptoms
Symptoms do not typically appear and treatment is not always necessary in the early stages of diabetic retinopathy. In order to prevent the condition from worsening, patients should monitor their blood-sugar levels. However, if the condition does worsen patients should seek immediate treatment to preserve their existing vision. If symptoms do appear they can present as:
- Blurred or double vision
- Seeing flashing lights, blank spots or dark floaters
- Pain or pressure in either or both eyes
- Problems with peripheral vision
- Severe vision loss if left untreated
- Irreversible blindness in advanced stages
Diagnosing Diabetic Retinopathy
An eye examination is often the only way to diagnose changes in the eye vessels and diabetic retinopathy, especially due to the lack of symptoms early on. Therefore, it is important for patients with diabetes to have routine eye examinations. During the examination, your Central Valley Eye Medical Group eye doctor may perform certain tests. This includes a visual acuity test, a dilated eye examination, tonometry test, and retinal exam.
Additionally, a fluorescein angiogram can test for diabetic retinopathy. This test involves an injection of orange-red dye, fluorescein, into the patient’s arm. The dye travels to your eye vessels and can be seen under a special filter. Our staff will take photographs of the retina through a green filtered camera with a flash of blue light. The pictures allow us to analyze and identify any damage to the lining of the retina or atypical blood vessels.
Diabetic Retinopathy Prevention
Everyone who has diabetes is at risk for developing diabetic retinopathy, but not everyone develops it. Generally, diabetics don’t develop diabetic retinopathy until they’ve had diabetes for at least 10 years. However, changes in blood sugar levels increase the risk. Therefore, patients should be sure to keep their blood sugar under control as much as possible. This is done by monitoring their blood pressure, maintaining a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and getting an eye exam at least once a year. These prevention methods can reduce the risk of blindness by 95 percent.
Stages of Diabetic Retinopathy
There are four distinct stages of diabetic retinopathy including:
- Mild nonproliferative retinopathy: microaneurysms develop in the tiny blood vessels of the retina
- Moderate nonproliferative retinopathy: blockages occur in blood vessels to the retina
- Severe nonproliferative retinopathy: blockages occur in the blood supply to the retina
- Proliferative retinopathy: new blood vessels grow alongside the retina to replace the blockages
Diabetic Retinopathy Treatment
Other than preventing diabetic retinopathy through means of maintaining a healthy lifestyle with regular eye exams there is no treatment necessary during the first three stages. In the fourth and most advanced stage, our staff can perform a pan-retinal photocoagulation. During this procedure, a laser destroys all of the dead areas of the retina where blood vessels have been closed. When these areas are treated with the laser, the retina stops manufacturing new blood vessels, and those that are already present tend to decrease or disappear. Additionally, if your body has cataracts due to diabetic retinopathy, we can correct them with cataract surgery.