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- Diabetic Retinopathy

Diabetes, a disease where blood sugar is elevated because the body cannot store it properly, affects small blood vessels throughout the body. The blood vessels in the eyes and kidney are particularly affected. When the blood vessels in the eyes are affected, this is called diabetic retinopathy.

The retina is in the back of the eye. It receives visual images and transmits them to the brain. Blood vessels lie on the front portion of the retina. When these blood vessels are damaged due to diabetes, they may leak fluid or blood. This leakage affects the ability of the retina to receive and transmit images.

During the early stages of diabetic retinopathy, reading vision is typically not affected. However, when retinopathy becomes advanced, new blood vessels grow in the retina. These new vessels are the body's attempt to overcome and replace the vessels that have been damaged by diabetes. However, these new vessels are not normal. They may bleed and cause the vision to become hazy, occasionally resulting in a complete loss of vision. The growth of abnormal blood vessels on the iris of the eye can lead to glaucoma. Diabetic retinopathy can also cause your body to form cataracts.

The new vessels also may damage the retina by forming scar tissue and pulling the retina away from its proper location. This is called retinal detachment and can lead to blindness if left untreated.

Symptoms of Diabetic Retinopathy

There are usually no symptoms in the early stages of diabetic retinopathy. With new onset diabetes however, the vision can fluctuate along with the fluctuation of blood sugar. This fluctuation of vision usually brings the patient into the eye doctor who often is the first person to make the diagnosis of diabetes.

  • Floaters or spider webs obscuring vision
  • Difficulty reading or doing close work
  • Poor central vision
  • Occasional pain in advanced disease

Causes of Diabetic Retinopathy

Diabetes: Everyone who has diabetes is at risk for developing diabetic retinopathy, but not everyone develops it. Changes in blood sugar levels increase the risk. Generally, diabetics don't develop diabetic retinopathy until they've had diabetes for at least 10 years.

How To Reduce Your Risk of Developing Diabetic Retinopathy

  • Keep your blood sugar under control.
  • Monitor your blood pressure.
  • Maintain a healthy, lean diet.
  • Lose weight
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Get an eye exam at least once a year.

Diagnosing Diabetic Retinopathy

There are usually no symptoms in the early stages of diabetic retinopathy. Vision may not change until the disease becomes severe. An exam is often the only way to diagnose changes in the vessels of your eyes. This is why regular examinations for people with diabetes are extremely important.

Your eye doctor may perform a test called Fluorescein Angiography. During the test, a harmless dye will be injected into a vein in your arm. The dye will travel through your body to the blood vessels in your retina. Your doctor will use a special camera to take serial photographs of the retina. The pictures will be analyzed to identify any damage to the lining of the retina or identify atypical new blood vessels.

Treatment for Diabetic Retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy does not usually impair sight until the development of long-term complications, including proliferative retinopathy (when abnormal new blood vessels bleed into the eye). When this advanced stage of retinopathy occurs, Pan-retinal Photocoagulation is performed. During this procedure, a laser is used to destroy all of the dead areas of retina where blood vessels have been closed. When these areas are treated with the laser, the retina stops manufacturing new blood vessels, and those that are already present tend to decrease or disappear.

If diabetic retinopathy has caused your body to form cataracts, they can be corrected with cataract surgery.

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