Diabetes is a disease that prevents the proper conversion of glucose (sugar) into energy within the body’s cells. Instead, blood glucose levels remain high, causing a variety of health problems. Diabetes occurs for one of two reasons:
- The pancreas’s beta cells don’t produce enough insulin to shuttle glucose into cells for energy
- Your body’s cells no longer respond to the effects of insulin
Diabetes is a common condition, especially in our fast-food, high-sugar-consuming society. According to the CDC’s 2017 National Diabetes Statistics Report, more than 30 million people in the US — that’s 9.4% of the population — had diabetes as of 2015. The vast majority of cases in adults (about 90%) are Type 2 diabetes, the most preventable form.
At Retina Specialists, our expert team of retinal ophthalmologists understands the problems diabetes can cause to your eye health. If you can learn to recognize the signs of diabetic eye conditions, you can help prevent vision loss from diabetic retinopathy, a condition that causes damage to the blood vessels in the eye.
How you see what you see
To understand how diabetes affects your vision, it helps to know a bit about how the eye works. To do that, let’s follow light as it enters the eye.
The surface of the eye contains a tough membrane that’s both clear and curved, called the cornea. Light bends to help with focus as it passes through the cornea.
Next, the light travels through the pupil (a hole in the colored iris) and then through a clear lens that fine-tunes the focus. Finally, light hits the tissue in the back of the eye, called the retina.
The retina takes the projected image and converts it into electrical signals, then sends those signals to the brain through the optic nerve. Your brain decodes the information and produces a visual image.
The central 2% of the retina registers vision more clearly than the peripheral (side) areas. Known as the macula, this small bit of tissue is nourished by blood vessels situated both in and behind the retina.
The problem of diabetic retinopathy
Everyone needs to have regular eye exams to ensure their eyes remain healthy and their vision clear, but it’s even more important for diabetics. High blood sugar levels can negatively impact your visual health and can lead to vision loss unless they’re managed.
Diabetic retinopathy is a leading cause of blindness, affecting one in three American adults over 40 with diabetes.
Nonproliferative diabetic retinopathy is an early stage of the condition. Here, blood vessels weaken from the high sugar, leaking blood into the retina, which swells as a result. If the macula swells, it’s termed macular edema.
This stage of retinopathy typically leads to blurry vision. If it’s not treated, and if the diabetes isn’t controlled, it can progress to proliferative diabetic retinopathy.
In this next stage, blood vessels can seal themselves off, preventing oxygen and nutrient delivery to your macula and resulting in new vessel growth (proliferation) on the retina’s surface. These vessels are abnormal and highly delicate, often leaking blood into the vitreous humor, a fluid-filled space around the retina.
Small amounts of leakage can cause relatively innocuous symptoms like floaters, but significant leakage can rob you of your sight. The abnormal blood vessels may also trigger new scar tissue growth, leading to macula edema, or a potentially detached retina.
Preventing vision loss from diabetic retinopathy
At Retina Specialists, we have treatments to help, no matter which stage of retinopathy you’re at. The specific treatment depends, though, on your eye health, the stage of disease, any coexisting eye conditions, and medical control over your blood sugar levels.
Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) is a protein that creates new blood vessels when your body needs them. The team uses intraocular injections of anti-VEGF drugs to halt new blood vessel creation, thereby reducing swelling, slowing vision deterioration, and possibly even improving vision.
Another possibility is laser surgery, which seals harmful blood vessels to reduce swelling and prevent regrowth.
If your proliferative diabetic retinopathy is advanced, you may need surgery like a vitrectomy, where your ophthalmologist removes the damaged vitreous gel, blood vessels, and scar tissue from your eye to allow for normal retinal function.
If you have diabetes, especially if your blood sugar isn’t under control, you’re at risk for developing diabetic retinopathy. To prevent vision loss, schedule a consultation with the expert ophthalmologists at Retina Specialists. Call any of our five Texas offices — in Dallas, DeSoto, Plano, Mesquite, and Waxahachie — or book online.