What You Should Know About Diabetic Retinopathy

by Dr. Steven Rhee

Diabetic retinopathy is an eye condition that affects those with diabetes. It occurs when there is damage done to the blood vessels in the retina. This complication can appear in both types of diabetes, type 1 and 2, and though symptoms may be mild at first, it can eventually lead to blindness.

Oftentimes, there are no symptoms in its early stages. However, as the condition progresses, you may experience symptoms such as blurry/Double vision, seeing flashes of light or floating spots in your vision (Known as flashes and floaters), blank or dark areas in your vision, reduced or low vision, and pain or pressure in one or both eyes.When we eat, your body breaks down food into glucose (sugar), and then a peptide hormone called insulin, moves this glucose from your blood into different cells.

When your body lacks enough insulin (a condition known as hyperglycemia) or your diet is too rich in sugars and forms of glucose, this can result in blood sugar levels rising higher than normal. This is known as having high blood sugar.

Diabetes is often associated with hyperglycemia and high blood sugar, and the longer you have diabetes and the less you monitor and maintain adequate blood sugar levels, the more prone you are to medical complications associated with this issue.Diabetic Retinopathy is a common condition for those with diabetes because it is caused when too much sugar is in the blood, creating blockages in the bloodstream.

These blockages result in changes to the blood vessels in the retina and cut off its blood supply. This is crucial because blood carries important nutrients and without it, the retina will begin to deteriorate.

Once blockages occur, the body responds by attempting to develop new blood vessels in its place. However, these blood vessels are very fragile and often do not develop properly, which causes leaking and swelling and results in major eye and vision complications. Because of the effects of diabetes on the blood, anyone with diabetes is prone to diabetic retinopathy. There are, however, risk factors that may raise your risk of developing this condition that you may be cautious of, such as:

Tobacco use
Poor control of blood sugar levels
High blood pressure
High cholesterol
Race (Black, Hispanic, and Native American ethnicities show the highest risk)Unfortunately, the longer you have diabetes, the higher the risk of developing diabetic retinopathy. That is why it is crucial for those with diabetes to receive a dilated eye exam every year.

Through this, your doctor will be able to check your signs in the retina and other parts of the eye, and diagnose any eye conditions that may be brought on by diabetes, and come up with a treatment plan.

If you have diabetes and become pregnant, we highly suggest receiving a dilated eye exam in your first trimester and throughout the pregnancy, up to one year after.

Diabetic retinopathy cannot always be prevented, but severe vision loss and eye problems resulting from diabetic retinopathy can be. This can be done by:

Monitoring and maintaining your blood sugar levels
Keeping your blood pressure and cholesterol under control
Eating a healthy and balanced diet
Keeping your body active
Quitting smoking and tobacco use
Testing hemoglobin A1c levels regularly
Testing urine for ketone levels regularly
Taking medication as directed and on schedule
Using Insulin as directedRemember, diabetes does not mean inevitable vision loss. With proper management and an active healthy lifestyle, you can live life to the fullest and without serious health complications brought on by diabetes.

DR. STEVEN RHEE, Medical Director and Cornea Specialist with Hawaiian Eye Center.

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