Diabetic Retinopathy: Causes and Symptoms

When you have diabetes, you know how important it is to take care of yourself and your health. You know that you can develop decreased sensitivity in your extremities, you have to watch your blood glucose levels, and you have a higher chance of developing other medical conditions.

Diabetic Retinopathy Definition

Even if you haven't heard of it, diabetic retinopathy is actually one of the main causes of blindness in Canadian adults. Located at the back of the eye, the light-sensitive tissue of the retina is responsible for healthy vision. Diabetic retinopathy manifests with changes in the blood vessels in and around the retina. Types of changes include leaking and swelling and abnormal blood vessel growth.


Causes
Just as too much sugar in your blood aggravates your diabetes, too much sugar in your blood can damage the blood vessels in your retina. The sugar can block off the tiny blood vessels and cut off their nourishment.


This process results in vision loss. The eye attempts to restore the pathway for nutrients to reach the retina by creating new blood vessels. Unfortunately, these newer blood vessels often don't develop fully and can leak more easily than the original blood vessels. Your body's attempts to heal itself can also result in scar tissue, which damages the retina's ability to detect light. In some cases, the retina can detach from the back of the eye.


Risk Factors
While diabetes is the main risk factor for anyone to develop diabetic retinopathy, other factors can also make people more susceptible to the condition. Here are a few of the most common risk factors:

  • Duration of diabetes: The longer you have had diabetes (type 1 and type 2), the greater risk you face of developing diabetic retinopathy. People who have poorly controlled diabetes are at even greater risk.
  • Race: African Canadians and Hispanics have a higher statistical risk of developing diabetic retinopathy.

  • Other medical conditions: Those who have conditions such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure have greater risk of developing symptoms.
  • Pregnancy: Women can develop gestational diabetes during pregnancy, which increases their risk of developing diabetic retinopathy. Also, women who develop gestational diabetes have a higher risk of developing diabetes as they grow older.
  • Tobacco use: Those who smoke cigarettes and other forms of tobacco have a higher risk of developing the disease.


While some of these risk factors are out of your control, you can do your part to prevent diabetic retinopathy by maintaining your general health.


Symptoms
High glucose levels affect other parts of the eye apart from the retina. Before diabetic retinopathy develops, many people with diabetes notice blurred vision in both eyes. That's because the blood sugar affects the eyes' lenses, causing them to swell and result in blurry or cloudy vision. This can be an early symptom of diabetic retinopathy.


Other symptoms include:


  • Blurred vision
  • Diabetic retinopathy usually affects both eyes
  • Difficulty seeing well at night
  • Difficulty with color perception
  • Fluctuating vision
  • Having a dark or empty spot in the center of your vision
  • Seeing spots or floaters in your field of vision
  • Vision loss
  • Blindness


However, some kinds of diabetic retinopathy can develop in such a way that people experience no symptoms in the early stages. The best way to treat diabetic retinopathy is to catch it early and begin treatment before vision loss occurs.


Prevention
Since the most effective treatment is prevention, take control of your health. If you have diabetes, schedule an annual appointment with your optometrist for a comprehensive dilated eye exam. Studies show that people who have proliferative retinopathy (a form of the condition that causes severe vision loss) can reduce their risk of blindness by as much as 95%.


Your optometrist will be able to give you proper treatments and follow-up care. This process allows you to control your condition and prevent its development so you can maintain as much of your vision as possible.


In between checkups, maintain your health according to your doctor's direction. It's especially important to carefully manage your diabetes, specifically keeping your glucose levels as close to normal for as much time as possible.


If you are pregnant and have developed gestational diabetes or you had diabetes before becoming pregnant, you should schedule an appointment with your optometrist. He or she can check your eyes for signs of retina damage and stop vision loss before it starts.


Finally, if you experience any sudden change to your vision quality, schedule an appointment with your optometrist. It may be a symptom of diabetic retinopathy.

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