Diabetes is a very common condition that is estimated to affect 1 in 10 Americans. Around 50% of these people don’t actually realize that they have the disease. Most people know that diabetes affects blood sugar levels, but very few understand the wider complications associated with the disease, which include issues affecting the eyes. Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes that is caused by persistently high blood sugar levels damaging the back of the eye. Without treatment, diabetic retinopathy can cause irreversible vision loss. However, it does progress slowly, meaning that it can usually be detected before it causes irreparable damage to your eyesight.
Here's what you need to know about the symptoms of diabetic retinopathy, and how it is diagnosed.
For nearly all patients, diabetic retinopathy will develop slowly over a number of months and years. What this means for them is that the symptoms of the condition are much harder to identify until they start to significantly affect the quality of their vision. For this reason, diabetic retinopathy is often detected at routine eye exams, rather than as a result of the patient's own awareness of vision issues.
However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t any symptoms of diabetic retinopathy. People with the condition usually experience:
Gradually worsening vision
Shapes floating in your vision
Blurred or patchy vision
Redness around the eyes
Sudden vision loss
Since these symptoms are also symptoms of many other conditions and diseases affecting the eyes and vision, you’ll need to schedule a consultation appointment with your eye doctor to confirm a diagnosis of diabetic retinopathy. This may involve several different tests, including taking images of your retina and assessing the quality of the blood vessels that provide the oxygen and nutrients that keep it healthy.
Like many different eye diseases, there are different stages of diabetic retinopathy. As part of the diagnostic process, your eye doctor will determine what stage your diabetic retinopathy is at. This is important since the stage that you are at will affect which treatment you are offered.
There are four stages of diabetic retinopathy:
Also known as background retinopathy, this is the earliest stage of the condition during which tiny bulges called microaneurysms occur in the blood vessels at the back of the eyes. These may leak small amounts of blood, but not enough to affect your vision. The good news is that if you get your diabetes under control, you can prevent the problem from getting worse.
In the moderate stage, nonproliferative retinopathy patients experience more significant changes to their retina, including more bleeding. The blood vessels that nourish the retina are blocked, and it’s likely that your vision could eventually be affected. You’ll need to have your eyes screened more frequently so that they can be closely monitored, and you’ll need to be very aware of your vision so that you can let your eye doctor know if you experience any symptoms of diabetic retinopathy, such as spots in your vision.
At this stage, many more blood vessels are blocked, depriving multiple areas of the retina of the blood supply that’s required to keep your eyes healthy. These areas of the retina send signals to the body to grow new blood vessels for nourishment.
At the final stage of diabetic retinopathy, the new blood vessels start to grow, developing along the retina and along the surface of the vitreous gel that fills the inside of the eye. These are abnormal and fragile, making them prone to leaking. This can lead to scarring of the macula which can cause permanent vision loss. There is also a risk of retinal detachment, which again can lead to blindness. Most patients find that their vision suddenly worsens, although proliferative retinopathy can occur without symptoms, so it is important to continue to have your eyes regularly screened at the earlier stages of the disease.
Persistently high blood sugar levels have been shown to cause damage to these blood vessels, causing them to leak fluid and blood onto the retina. If your eye doctor suspects diabetic retinopathy, they will conduct a special exam to confirm a diagnosis. This is a non-invasive exam that involves dilating your pupils so that your eye doctor can look through your eyes and examine the structures at the back. This is done using a special camera. The area that your eye doctor will be looking at will be the retina, and they will be examining for any evidence of leaking or abnormal blood vessels.
If you are given a diagnosis of diabetic retinopathy, your eye doctor will then discuss treatments with you.
For further information about the symptoms of diabetic retinopathy, or if you have any concerns about the condition, please call our doctors at Kopolow & Girisgen Doctors of Optometry in Las Vegas, Nevada at (702) 452-2020 for our Pearle Vision locations and (702) 341-7254 for our LensCrafters locations.