Eye Problems and Diabetes

If you have diabetes, regular visits to your ophthalmologist for eye exams are important to avoid eye problems. High blood sugar (glucose) increases the risk of diabetes eye problems. In fact, diabetes is the leading cause of blindness in adults age 20 to 74. High blood sugar in diabetes causes the lens of the eye to swell, which changes your ability to see. To correct this kind of eye problem, you need to get your blood sugar back into the target range (90-130 milligrams per deciliter or mg/dL before meals, and less than 180 mg/dL one to two hours after a meal). It may take as long as three months after your blood sugar is well controlled for your vision to fully get back to normal. Blurred vision can also be a symptom of more serious eye problem with diabetes. The three major eye problems that people with diabetes may develop and should be aware of are cataracts, glaucoma, and retinopathy.

Diabetic Retinopathy

The retina is a group of specialized cells that convert light as it enters though the lens into images. The eye nerve or optic nerve transmits visual information to the brain. Diabetic retinopathy is one of the vascular (blood-vessel related) complications related to diabetes. This diabetes eye problem is due to damage of small vessels and is called a “microvascular complication.” Kidney disease and nerve damage due to diabetes are also microvascular complications. Large blood vessel damage (also called macrovascular complications) includes complications like heart disease and stroke.

The microvascular complications have, in numerous studies, been shown to be related to high blood sugar levels. You can reduce your risk of these eye problems in diabetes complications by improving your blood sugar control. Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of irreversible blindness in industrialized nations. The duration of diabetes is the single most important risk for developing retinopathy. So the longer you have diabetes, the greater the risk of this very serious eye problem. If retinopathy is not found early or is not treated, it can lead to blindness.

People with type 1 diabetes rarely develop retinopathy before puberty. In adults with type 1 diabetes, it is also rare to see retinopathy before five years’ duration of diabetes.  People with type 2 diabetes usually have signs of eye problems when diabetes is diagnosed. In this case, control of blood sugar, blood pressure, and blood cholesterol with diabetes have an important role in slowing the progression of retinopathy and other eye problems.

Types of Retinopathy in Diabetes:

Background retinopathy. Sometimes the blood vessel damage exists, but there is no vision problem. This is called background retinopathy. It’s important to carefully manage your diabetes at this stage to prevent background retinopathy from progressing to more serious eye disease.

Maculopathy. In maculopathy, the person has developed damage in a critical area called the macula. Because this occurs in an area that is critical to vision, this type of eye problem can significantly reduce vision.

Proliferative retinopathy. New blood vessels start to grow in the back of the eye. Because retinopathy is a microvascular complication of diabetes, a disease of small vessels, this type of retinopathy develops because of an increasing lack of oxygen to the eye from vascular disease. Vessels in the eye are thinned and occluded and they start to remodel.

Treatment of diabetic retinopathy may involve laser procedures or surgery. In a study of people with diabetes with early retinopathy, laser therapy to burn the fragile vessel resulted in a 50{0730eed075b45d9e50c00d6cd42dd08773e0164f29a45151808bf89051290974} reduction of blindness. To prevent retinopathy with diabetes, have your eye doctor screen your eyes annually. Women with diabetes who later become pregnant should have a comprehensive eye exam during the first trimester and close follow-up with an eye doctor during the rest of their pregnancy to avoid serious eye problems with diabetes. (This recommendation does not apply to women who develop gestational diabetes, since they are not at risk for retinopathy.)

The American Diabetes Association offers these eye care guidelines for people with diabetes to help prevent eye problems: People with type 1 diabetes should have a dilated eye exam by an ophthalmologist or optometrist within three to five years after diagnosis. People with type 2 diabetes should have a dilated eye exam by an ophthalmologist or optometrist shortly after diagnosis.

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