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Diabetic Retinopathy and Other Eye Problems

Nov 30, 2008
Diabetic retinopathy is a leading cause of blindness in American adults. It is caused by changes in the blood vessels of the retina.

Diabetes is the number one cause of reversible vision loss in American adults, contributing to as many as 5,000 cases of legal blindness each year.

What is diabetic retinopathy?

While the entire eye is vulnerable to injury, one part in particular--the retina--is especially sensitive to damage in people with diabetes. The retina is located deep inside the eye and is often compared with the film in a 35-millimeter camera: It detects light and color, and it sends information to the brain that is put together into an image.
Damage to the retina, known as "retinopathy," is especially common among people with uncontrolled blood glucose levels and people who have had diabetes for many years. Not everyone with retinopathy will experience vision loss, however. Severe disease can sometimes develop without any telltale symptoms. That's why early diagnosis and prompt treatment are the keys to preventing serious eye damage in the future.

Preventing diabetic retinopathy

People with diabetes can reduce their risk of retinopathy--and slow the progression of existing eye disease--by following these recommendations:

  • Test blood glucose regularly.

  • Consume a healthy, diabetes-friendly diet.

  • Control high blood pressure.

  • Seek treatment for anemia, atherosclerosis and kidney disease.

  • Schedule yearly checkups with an eye doctor; more frequently if diagnosed with retinopathy.

Who's at risk?

Studies have shown that nearly all people with type 1 diabetes--and more than half of those with type 2 diabetes--experience at least some degree of retinopathy after living with the disease for 20 years. Uncontrolled blood glucose levels can increase the risk of retinopathy, and infrequent visits to the eye doctor can delay diagnosis and lead to serious complications. Research suggests that certain minority groups, such as non-Hispanic blacks and Mexican-Americans older than 40, are at a greater risk than others of developing retinopathy.

Warning signs

Contact an ophthalmologist if any of the following symptoms develop:

  • Decreased or distorted vision

  • Blurriness

  • Fluctuations in vision quality

  • Difficulty seeing at night

  • Seeing spots or "floaters"

  • Seeing shadows or blind spots

Treatment options

Retinopathy doesn’t always result in legal blindness. Cases can be classified as mild, moderate or severe. A variety of treatments is available, depending on the extent of damage to the retina:

  • Mild to moderate cases of diabetic retinopathy often benefit from careful monitoring and control of blood glucose levels under the close supervision of a doctor.

  • Laser therapy is used to treat severe retinopathy.

  • Steroid injections are sometimes used to treat severe cases that do not respond to laser therapy.

  • Surgery is not typically used to treat diabetic retinopathy itself, though it is sometimes used to address complications of the disease.

  • People with diabetes who also have cataracts typically undergo screening and treatment for retinopathy before undergoing cataract surgery.

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