What to Know About a Diabetic Eye Exam
Diabetes is an often misunderstood disease that does not discriminate based on social or economic backgrounds. Diabetes, while often influenced by lifestyle factors, is also genetically influenced in some cases. Currently, there are an estimated 30 million people of all ages living with diabetes in the U.S. Diabetes can have many health effects, such as nerve damage, which can even affect your eyes. A diabetic eye exam is always a good option.
Diabetes can be a devastating disease, especially when there is a lack of proper medical care, whether it be due to underestimating the severity of the disease or having limited access to medical care. An often overlooked consequence of diabetes is the disease’s effect on eyesight. Any individual who is living with diabetes, or even prediabetes, should make a point of receiving regular eye exams by an ophthalmologic practitioner who is knowledgeable and experienced in diabetic eye care to protect their vision.
Diabetes is a condition that occurs when your body can no longer produce insulin (a hormone created by the pancreas) or where it can no longer use it effectively. Insulin is an important hormone that regulates how your body uses glucose. Without insulin, glucose accumulates in the blood, while other cells in the body are essentially starving from the lack of glucose. This is how the high blood sugar levels are associated with diabetes.
Living with diabetes requires some adjustments. An individual’s treatment plan may include medical intervention, lifestyle adjustments, or both. Taking proper care of yourself and receiving the treatment you need is critical to living well with diabetes. It is a disease with consequences like kidney damage, nerve damage, cardiovascular damage and deterioration of eyesight. In the most severe cases, unmonitored diabetes can lead to a coma and it can even become fatal.
Diabetes and Eyesight
Diabetes can affect a person’s eyesight with a condition called diabetic retinopathy. Diabetic retinopathy affects blood vessels in the retina, which can lead to impaired vision or even vision loss. The damage caused to the blood vessels in the retina causes them to swell, leak, or close altogether. In some cases, the damage may cause new, abnormal vessels to develop. Regardless of the pathway, all of these changes can compromise a person’s vision.
One of the most concerning aspects of diabetic retinopathy is that there often are not any warning signs that damage is happening. Unlike other eye conditions, there are not any early warning signs of diabetic retinopathy and unfortunately at the most advanced stages, it is often too late to restore full eyesight, even with advanced surgical procedures.
Diabetic retinopathy can lead to complete loss of vision, however, while there might not be any early warning signs, vision loss is something that can be prevented if diabetic retinopathy is caught early through a diabetic eye exam.
Diabetic Related Eye Conditions
There are two main stages of diabetic retinopathy with the first being the earliest stage that is very common in individuals with diabetes. The second is the more advanced stage of disease, where permanent damage can occur if not closely monitored.
Non-Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy
In the earliest stages of diabetic retinopathy, small blood vessels begin to leak, which cause the retina to swell. This results in a condition known as macular edema and it is a common cause of eventual vision loss in individuals with diabetes. In this stage, vessels can also begin to close off. This is a condition called macular ischemia. Both of these conditions can produce blurred vision.
Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy
During this advanced stage of diabetic retinopathy, new blood vessels begin to grow in the retina. This is a process called neovascularization. These new blood vessels are small and fragile, which makes them more likely to bleed. As they bleed, a person might notice an increase in dark colored floaters in their vision. However, if the vessels are bleeding more profusely, vision can be blocked entirely. The build up of scar tissue can also cause the retina to detach, further amplifying vision loss.
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Finding the Right Doctor for Your Diabetic Eye Exams
An ounce of prevention can help save your vision if you have diabetes. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of yearly eye exams for individuals with diabetes. Because diabetes can cause specific changes to the eye, it is equally important that the medical vision professional performing your eye examine is not only aware of your condition but is also specialized in identifying diabetic retinopathy in their patients.
There are different types of vision practitioners who can perform an eye exam. Diabetics should schedule yearly examinations with an ophthalmologist as opposed to an optometrist. Better yet, find an ophthalmologist who specializes in the field of diabetic vision care.
The Truth About a Diabetic Eye Exam
While serious vision problems often occur at least 10 years after a diagnosis, it is estimated that one in five people experience some degree of visual impairment at the time of their diabetes diagnosis. If you have only been recently diagnosed, it is important that you not delay in making an appointment for an eye exam. Even if there are no immediate signs of vision deterioration, making an appointment at the earliest point of a known diagnosis can help establish a baseline for future eye exams. This is also true for women who are pregnant, known to be diabetic or have been diagnosed with gestational diabetes.
There’s no reason to be anxious over your diabetic eye exam. For the most part, what you experience will not be that much different from a typical eye exam. You’ll go through the usual paperwork, at which point it is essential to list all the known details about your condition, including when you were diagnosed with diabetes, any associated health issues and any vision problems you have experienced. It’s also important that your ophthalmologist is aware of any medications you may be taking, as certain ones can interfere with the results of your eye exam.
In addition to checking your vision acuity, your ophthalmologist will perform an examination to assess the health and function of the inner structures of the eye, including the retina. This part of the exam is generally quick and painless. Your ophthalmologist will be looking for signs of diabetic retinopathy, including microaneurysms that appear as little red or white spots on the retina. These spots are only visible by a doctor through a proper diabetic eye exam.
When diagnosed early, diabetic retinopathy can be monitored and treated through laser and surgical treatment that can halt the vision damage caused by diabetes. If you live with diabetes, taking the time to make and keep your annual diabetic eye exam can preserve your vision and minimize the impact of diabetes on your life.