According to the , over 37 million Americans, or 11.3% of the population, have diabetes. Diabetes is a chronic disease that affects the body's ability to produce or use insulin, and if left untreated, it can lead to serious health complications such as heart disease, kidney failure, and nerve damage.
One of the lesser-known potential consequences is diabetic retinopathy. This condition is a leading cause of blindness, and of people with diabetes will develop diabetic retinopathy at some point in their lives, making it a crucial issue to be aware of and monitor.
But what is diabetic retinopathy, and how can you tell if you have it?
What is Diabetic Retinopathy?
Diabetic retinopathy is a condition that affects the eyes, specifically the retina, which is the light-sensitive layer at the back of the eye, and the tiny blood vessels that nourish it. It is caused by high levels of blood sugar, which can damage these blood vessels and cause them to leak or become blocked. This prevents the retina from receiving the necessary oxygen and nutrients, leading to vision problems.
There are two primary types of diabetic retinopathy: non-proliferative and proliferative.
- Non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy, the earliest stage, occurs when the leaking blood vessels cause the macula to swell. The macula is the part of the retina responsible for clear central vision, and when it is affected, it can cause vision issues.
- Proliferative diabetic retinopathy, the more advanced and severe form, occurs when the retina starts growing new, abnormal blood vessels. This process, called neovascularization, can lead to serious vision issues.
Several risk factors contribute to the development of diabetic retinopathy, including the length of time someone has had diabetes, poor control of blood sugar levels, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Regular management and monitoring of these risk factors can help prevent or slow the progression of diabetic retinopathy.
The Signs of Diabetic Retinopathy
In its early stages, diabetic retinopathy may not present any noticeable symptoms, which is why regular eye exams are essential for people with diabetes. However, as the condition progresses, there are several signs that may develop as the abnormal blood vessels grow.
Sign 1: Blurred Vision
Blurred vision is often one of the first signs of diabetic retinopathy. This occurs when the macula swells due to the abnormal blood vessels leaking, a condition known as macular edema. Additionally, these new blood vessels are fragile and can bleed into the vitreous, the gel-like substance that fills the eye. They can also cause scar tissue to form, which can pull on the retina and lead to retinal detachment.
Importantly, blurred vision can also be a symptom of other eye conditions, so any vision changes should be discussed with an eye doctor.
Sign 2: Flashes of Light or Floating Spots
Experiencing flashes of light or seeing floating spots is another common sign of diabetic retinopathy. This phenomenon, medically known as photopsia, typically occurs when the new, fragile blood vessels bleed into the vitreous, causing shadows that appear as floating spots or 'floaters.'
These floaters can range from a few tiny spots to hundreds of spots clouding your vision, depending on the extent of the bleeding. Similarly, flashes of light occur when the vitreous tugs or pulls on the retina, as the abnormal blood vessels and scar tissue cause the retina to detach.
These symptoms can significantly impact a person's daily activities. For instance, driving could become dangerous if your field of vision is obstructed by floaters or momentarily blinded by flashes of light. Reading, using a computer, or performing intricate tasks may become challenging, and recognizing people's faces at a distance could also be an issue. If you experience any of these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.
Sign 3: Difficulty with Color Perception
Over time, damage to the blood vessels in the retina due to high blood sugar can affect the light-sensitive cells responsible for color perception. Specifically, individuals with diabetic retinopathy may have trouble distinguishing between colors, such as blues and greens or reds and purples.
In severe cases, colors may appear washed out or less vibrant. This impairment of color vision is more noticeable in low-light conditions. As with other symptoms, changes in color perception should be immediately reported to an eye care professional as they can be indicative of advancing diabetic retinopathy.
Sign 4: Dark or Empty Areas in Your Vision
As the condition progresses, you may start to notice dark or empty areas in your field of vision. This symptom, known as scotoma, occurs when portions of the retina are starved of oxygen and nutrients due to the damaged blood vessels. The retina's cells, deprived of their necessary sustenance, begin to die, creating these vision 'blackouts.'
These blackouts can occur suddenly or gradually, depending on the severity of the damage, and they can make it very difficult for a person to navigate environments, read, recognize faces, or perform other daily tasks.
Sign 5: Vision Loss
Diabetic retinopathy can ultimately lead to severe vision loss, marking the most serious outcome of the condition. This loss occurs when the retina, unable to receive the necessary oxygen and nutrients due to damaged blood vessels, begins to die, severely impairing or completely eradicating the eye's ability to process light and create images. This symptom underscores the severity of diabetic retinopathy and its potential to significantly alter a person's quality of life.
How to Prevent Diabetic Retinopathy
Developing diabetic retinopathy can be a frightening prospect, but by managing and controlling your diabetes, you can help prevent or slow its progression. Here are a few things you can do to protect your vision:
- Maintain Healthy Blood Sugar Levels: Consistently monitoring and controlling your blood sugar levels is the most crucial step you can take in preventing diabetic retinopathy. Keeping your blood sugar within a healthy range helps reduce the risk of damage to the small blood vessels in the retina.
- Manage High Blood Pressure and Cholesterol: High blood pressure and cholesterol can damage your blood vessels, making it easier for them to leak or become blocked. Monitor these risk factors closely and take steps to keep them under control with medication, diet, and exercise.
- Get Regular Eye Exams: People with diabetes should have a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once a year, if not more frequently, depending on the severity of their condition. These check-ups allow for early detection of the disease, increasing the chances of successful treatment and management.
Diagnosis & Treatment at Infinity Retina
Infinity Retina's board-certified ophthalmologist, Dr. A’sha Brown, specializes in the treatment of macular and retinal conditions, including diabetic retinopathy. With state-of-the-art technology and cutting-edge treatments, our office can diagnose and manage diabetic retinopathy at all stages.
In addition to controlling your blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol, the two most common treatments for diabetic retinopathy are laser therapy and anti-VEGF medication.
- Laser treatments are commonly used to seal leaking blood vessels or to discourage new faulty ones from forming. This approach has proven effective in slowing or even stopping the progression of the disease, and it's performed with utmost precision to ensure the safety of our patients.
- Anti-VEGF medication can help reduce the number of abnormal blood vessels in the retina. This treatment, delivered via injections into the eye, can help improve vision and prevent further damage to the retina.
In severe cases, surgery may be necessary to remove scar tissue or repair a detached retina. However, these procedures are typically only considered in advanced stages of diabetic retinopathy.
Infinity Retina, guided by Dr. Brown's wealth of experience and expertise, is committed to providing superior care for patients with diabetic retinopathy. If you or a loved one is experiencing signs of this condition or have already been diagnosed with it, contact our office to schedule an appointment. Early detection and proper management can help preserve your vision and maintain your quality of life, so don't wait; take control of your eye health today.