Did you know that over 29 million Americans – over 9% of our total population - have diabetes? Those who suffer from this disease are aware of the numerous complications and conditions that can arise once diagnosed. Diabetes can affect your blood pressure, kidneys, heart rate, and, yes, your eyes.
Diabetic retinopathy is the most common diabetic eye disease. Diabetic retinopathy occurs when the body’s glucose levels increase, causing fluid to accumulate in the lens of your eye. Diabetic retinopathy can lead to gradual loss of sight, resulting in blindness if left untreated.
Types of Diabetic Retinopathy
Diabetic retinopathy can be entirely preventable if your diabetes is kept under control. There are two types of diabetic retinopathy: non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy (NPDR) and proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR).
Non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy is considered the earliest stage of diabetic retinopathy and often has very few visual symptoms. During this stage, the blood vessels in the retina begin to weaken, causing the vessels to develop tiny bulges called microaneurysms. These microaneurysms end up leaking fluid into the retina, in turn making the macula damaged and swelled.
In proliferative diabetic retinopathy, the disease has progressed and is more advanced. Proliferative diabetic retinopathy is the stage in which the retina becomes deprived of oxygen. The blood vessels in the retina close, preventing blood flow. The retina will attempt to grow new blood vessels, which tend to be weak and can leak blood into the vitreous – the gel-like substance that fills the space between the lens and the retina. This leakage can cause floaters or clouded vision.
Symptoms of Diabetic Retinopathy
Though early stages of this condition present no visual symptoms, you may experience these symptoms as diabetic retinopathy progresses:
- Spots or floaters
- Blurred, hazy vision
- Fluctuating vision
- Dark or empty areas in your vision
- Pressure within the eye
- Partial vision loss
Treatment of diabetic retinopathy depends on what stage of the disease a patient may be in. Regular monitoring is usually the only treatment option when the disease is in the non-proliferative stages, along with following a healthy diet and regular exercise. These simple fixes can be enough to control blood sugar levels, which can lead to a slower progression of diabetic retinopathy.
When diabetic retinopathy has progressed to an advanced stage, a laser treatment called photocoagulation may be necessary if macular edema has occurred. Photocoagulation uses a laser beam with light to generate small burns on the retina of the eye. These small burns are created with the hope of sealing up any leaks that may have opened in the retina.
Diabetic Retinopathy & Glaucoma
When new blood vessels are growing during proliferative diabetic retinopathy, they raise eye pressure, which leads to damage of the optic nerve. If the condition continues to be left untreated, this advanced stage can lead to glaucoma. Glaucoma can affect the eye’s optic nerve and is caused by elevated eye pressure combined with poor circulation of the fluid in the retina. The blockage of blood flow that commonly develops during proliferative diabetic retinopathy is what eventually causes glaucoma. Glaucoma is commonly referred to as “the silent thief of sight” by the way it presents no symptoms until it’s too late.
Maintaining glucose levels and normal blood pressure is crucial to one’s health, as it slows both the onset and progression of diabetic retinopathy. When dealing with diabetes, a yearly comprehensive eye exam is recommended. The symptoms of diabetic retinopathy are not visual, making a yearly (dilated) eye exam with us crucial for those with diabetes.
Easy ways to prevent retinopathy include controlling high blood pressure, sticking to a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and taking all prescribed medications.
If you’re a patient with diabetes in Tallahassee or Perry and you’re concerned about developing diabetic retinopathy, please make an appointment for a consultation with one of our specialists. When caught early, diabetic retinopathy can be treated, saving your vision. At Eye Associates of Tallahassee, we’re here for you, every step of the way!