Woman taking a diabetes test

When the body does not use and store sugar properly, a condition called diabetes develops. If unmanaged, the disease can result in significant damage to the lining of blood vessels, which affects the major organs – the eyes, heart, and kidneys.

Who is at risk for diabetic eye disease?

Anyone with type 1 or type 2 diabetes is at risk for eye disease. Patients who fall into either category should have a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least every year. The longer someone has the disease, the greater the potential for developing diabetic retinopathy becomes. Patients with diabetic retinopathy may need to be seen more frequently to reduce the risk of blindness.

Diabetic Eye Disease

How is diabetic eye disease diagnosed?

  • Visual acuity test – measures how well the patient sees at various distances.
  • Dilated eye exam – allows the eye doctor to better see inside the eye to observe the blood vessels in their actual functional state. The eye is the only structure where blood vessels can be seen in their smallest size. These vessels supply oxygen to the tissues.
  • Tonometry – measures the pressure inside the eye.

Complications from diabetes can reveal themselves in several forms of eye disease. Patients with diabetes tend to form cataracts at an earlier age. Similarly, an adult patient with diabetes is twice as likely to develop glaucoma. This is significant because the increased intraocular pressure from glaucoma can damage the optic nerve, resulting in permanent loss of vision.

If untreated, high blood sugar levels can damage the delicate vessels in the retina, the nerve layer at the back of the eye that senses light and helps to send visual messages to the brain. The damage to retinal vessels is called diabetic retinopathy. It is the most common diabetic eye disease.

How is diabetic retinopathy diagnosed?

As mentioned earlier, diabetic patients should have regular, dilated medical eye exams. The eye doctor will look through the dilated pupil with an ophthalmoscope. If evidence of diabetic retinopathy is detected, a special test may be ordered to determine what type of treatment is required.

Diabetic Retinopathy Research

Studies are ongoing to find better ways to detect, treat, and prevent vision loss for patients with diabetes. Current laboratory investigations are underway to develop medications that will stop the retina from sending signals to the body to grow new blood vessels. The hope is that in the future, it will be far easier for people to control diabetic retinopathy.

We can’t stress strongly enough the importance of routine dilated examinations for patients with diabetes. It is the first line of defense against this insidious disease.

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