For patients with diabetes mellitus, you are probably aware of your body's inability to use and store sugar, and how it can affect your health. You may become disoriented, tired or thirsty due to fluctuations in your blood sugar.
Diabetic retinopathy is a common complication associated with diabetes, and it the leading cause of blindness among working-age Americans.
Although diabetic retinopathy is not painful, it can severely damage your vision. Early forms of this disease are called non-proliferative or background retinopathy. If either of these lead to macular edema, you may have difficulty with up-close work (such as reading), or you may notice a gradual blurring. If the abnormal blood vessels bleed, then your vision may become spotty, hazy or disappear altogether.
What Is Diabetic Retinopathy?
Diabetic retinopathy is an eye disease affecting the retina and is a frequent complication of diabetes. Diabetes damages the small blood vessels in the retina and can lead to poor vision and even blindness. During the early stages, the tiny blood vessels in the eye weaken. The blood vessels develop small bulges that may burst and leak into the retina and into the gel-like fluid inside the eye called the vitreous gel. As the condition progresses, new fragile blood vessels grow on the surface of the retina, impairing vision. This is called proliferative retinopathy.
What Are the Symptoms of Diabetic Retinopathy?
It is possible to have diabetic retinopathy for some time without noticing any symptoms. Typically, it does not cause noticeable symptoms until significant damage has occurred and complications have developed.
Symptoms may include:
- Blurred or distorted vision or difficulty reading
- Floaters or flashes of light in your field of vision
- Partial or total loss of vision or a shadow or veil across your field of vision
- Pain in the eye
If any of these symptoms appear for the first time or increase, call your doctor immediately.
Who Does Diabetic Retinopathy Affect?
The risk of developing diabetic retinopathy depends largely upon two factors, how long one has had diabetes and what type of diabetes one has. The longer you have diabetes, the more likely you are to develop the disease. In addition, people with Type I diabetes (juvenile onset) are more likely to develop diabetic retinopathy than people with Type II diabetes (adult onset).
How to Avoid Diabetic Retinopathy
Help avoid damage to the retina by keeping blood sugar and blood pressure levels near normal. This can slow the progress of retinopathy and prevent vision loss. Have an eye exam by an eye specialist every year. Screening for diabetic retinopathy and other eye problems will not prevent diabetic eye disease, but it can help you avoid vision loss by allowing for early detection and treatment. And see an eye doctor immediately if changes in your vision occur. Changes in vision such as floaters, flashes of light, pain or pressure in the eye, blurry or double vision may be symptoms of serious damage to the retina. In most cases, the sooner the problem can be treated, the more effective the treatment will be.
How Is Diabetic Retinopathy Treated?
There is no cure for diabetic retinopathy. However, laser treatment (photocoagulation) can be very effective at preventing vision loss if it is done before the retina has been severely damaged. Surgical removal of the vitreous gel may also help improve vision if the retina has not been severely damaged.
Alcon and other companies are actively pursuing treatments for nonproliferative diabetic retinopathy.
Dr Herbert C. Becker Jr, MD, is a board certified retina specialist, whose expertise for all retina problems is avaible at our Joliet, Morris, and New lenox offices. To make an appointment with Dr Becker please call 815-729-3777.