What Is Diabetic Retinopathy?
Diabetic retinopathy is a type of eye disease that affects the retina — the tissue at the back of the eye that helps convert light into electrical signals that the brain uses to form visual images. The disease affects people with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes. People whose diabetes isn’t well controlled often have high blood sugar levels and, over time, that high blood sugar damages the blood vessels in the retina and causes retinopathy.
Poorly controlled diabetes is the cause of diabetic retinopathy. Some diabetics aren’t aware they are diabetic and so are at risk for developing retinopathy. Risk factors for diabetic retinopathy include:
The number of years you have had diabetes
The level of blood sugar control
Signs of other organ damage like kidney or heart disease
Those who have diabetes or are at risk for diabetes should be aware of diabetic retinopathy and tell their doctor if they have any of the following symptoms:
A change in vision – diabetics who have very high blood sugar can have a swelling of the lens that changes their glasses prescription. These vision problems often improve once blood sugar levels are in check.
Blurry vision – one common problem is fluid that leaks from the retinal blood vessels into the retina causing swelling and blurry vision.
Dark spots — if the retinopathy progresses to the point where new blood vessels are growing in the eye, they can bleed causing floaters. This is a very worrisome sign.
Loss of vision — this can come from extensive bleeding inside the eye or from the new blood vessels leading to a retinal detachment.
There are three primary ways of treating diabetic retinopathy:
Lifestyle management — Blood sugar control is a great treatment option at all stages of the disease. This will help prevent diabetic retinopathy and make it easier to treat. It’s important for patients with diabetes to follow their doctor’s recommendations for healthy eating and regular exercise and to take any medicines prescribed for diabetes. They also should closely monitor blood sugar levels.
Laser treatment — In later stages of the disease, laser treatment may be recommended. During this procedure, a laser creates small burns in the retina to seal off abnormal blood vessels that are leaking blood and fluid into the retina. If the growth of abnormal vessels is widespread, it may require extensive burning to effectively sacrifice the peripheral retina to preserve the central retina. This might result in some permanent peripheral vision loss, but it can help protect central vision and stop further loss.
Medications — Steroids injected into the eye can reduce swelling to try and restore vision. Anti-VEGF medications, which also are injected into the eye, can stop abnormal blood vessels from growing and leaking and help dry up retinal swelling.
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