Those who have been diagnosed with diabetes are at risk for a sight-threatening condition known as diabetic retinopathy, in which diabetes causes complications that affect the back of the eyes. This condition can happen in both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. Diabetic retinopathy can cause subtle or mild vision changes that may eventually lead to blindness. It is important for those affected by diabetes to regularly have the health of their eyes evaluated in order to prevent vision loss from diabetic retinopathy.
The Basics of Diabetic Retinopathy
Diabetes is a condition in which blood sugar levels are irregular and poorly controlled. Long term, these irregular blood sugar levels can damage blood vessels throughout the body. Some of the smaller, more delicate blood vessels, such as those found in the back of the eye, are the most susceptible to damage from diabetes. The small blood vessels can leak, causing blood and protein to enter the surrounding retinal tissue. If this happens, the retina can swell and result in tissue damage. One of the vision-threatening complications of diabetic retinopathy occurs when this swelling happens in the macula, which is the part of the eye that is responsible for central vision. When the macula is affected by diabetic changes, treatment may be necessary in order to reduce swelling and preserve eyesight.
In severe cases of diabetic retinopathy, the retinal blood vessels can close up, preventing necessary blood flow throughout the retina. This can result in the retinal tissue becoming ischemic, which can quickly lead to permanent damage. Oftentimes in severe diabetic retinopathy, the retinal tissue is desperate for blood flow and fragile new blood vessels begin to grow. These new vessels are weak and leaky, and can come with many complications ranging from large hemorrhages to retinal tears or detachments.
Risk Factors for Diabetic Retinopathy
The development of diabetic retinopathy depends on two main factors: the duration of diabetes, and how well the underlying diabetes is controlled. Those who have had diabetes for many years are more at risk for developing these complications. Similarly, those who have poorly controlled blood sugar levels are more likely to have diabetic retinal changes. If you have diabetes, it is important to work closely with your primary care doctor and/or your endocrinologist to make sure your blood sugar levels are properly managed. Diet, exercise, and compliance with medications is essential in preventing vision loss associated with diabetes.
Treating Diabetic Retinopathy
Regular ocular health evaluations are necessary to determine whether diabetic retinopathy is present. If the retina has been affected by diabetic changes, treatment may be warranted depending on the severity of the condition. If leaky vessels have led to macular swelling and vision is being affected, treatment with a laser procedure or an injection can reduce the swelling and prevent further complications and vision loss. In some cases of mild diabetic retinopathy, there may be no need for treatment, and the condition is simply monitored to ensure no problems arise. As mentioned earlier, the treatment of diabetic retinopathy relies heavily on the treatment of the underlying diabetes. Some cases of diabetic retinopathy can completely resolve without intervention if the blood sugar levels are closely monitored and well controlled.