We’re not exactly going out on a limb when we call diabetes a serious, surprisingly common problem. Recent estimates have pegged the number of Americans with the disease at around 29 million, meaning that, if you’re reading this article from within the US, there’s a roughly nine percent chance that you’re currently dealing with diabetes yourself.
While anyone living with diabetes has likely heard at least a short warning about the effects it can have on your vision, you may still be left wondering exactly what those effects are, how to recognize them, and how to handle them. This article aims to cover some of the disorders most likely to affect diabetics’ eyes, chief among them diabetic retinopathy, and to cover some of the common symptoms, risks, and treatments they require.
What Should You Watch For?
One of the most worrying things about diabetes is how easily it can fly under the radar. In 2012, an estimated 8.1 million people were living with undiagnosed diabetes in the US. As difficult as the disease is even with a diagnosis and appropriate treatment, it can be much, much worse without.
Type II, or adult onset diabetes, often doesn’t even cause obvious symptoms, a tendency that has earned it the moniker of “the silent killer.” As a result, it’s important to be aware of the some of the signs of diabetes. It may be time to get tested if you notice any of the following symptoms.
Diabetes sufferers often find themselves urinating more frequently than before, a symptom that goes hand in hand with the increased thirst that many diabetics experience. If you find yourself consistently hungry, even after eating, that may also be a symptom. Extreme fatigue and slow healing are also red flags. Type II patients might also feel pain, tingling, and numbness in their extremities.
Another common symptom is blurred vision. Eyesight changes should always be taken seriously, and in this case, if they’re noticed in tandem with some of the other symptoms listed above, then you’ll want to see a physician quickly.
Early intervention is important for any of the problems caused by diabetes, but it’s doubly important for your eyes, as blurred vision can signal the presence of a serious complication known as diabetic retinopathy.
What is Diabetic Retinopathy?
Diabetic Retinopathy occurs after tiny blood vessels in the eye are damaged by changes caused by diabetes. In the early stages of the disease, very few individuals will show any noticeable symptoms, and will generally have apparently normal vision.
Occasionally, damaged vessels will leak fluid into the eye, causing a condition called macular edema that results in blurred vision; however, the only truly reliable way to catch the initial, or nonproliferative, stage of diabetic retinopathy is to schedule consistent eye exams, something all diabetics should do.
If the nonproliferative stage is left untreated, it will eventually progress to the proliferative stage. During this second, more serious period, new blood vessels will form, bleed, and eventually destroy the retina if allowed to continue unchecked. Diabetic retinopathy accounts for 12% of new cases of blindness in the US annually, making it the leading cause of blindness for people between the ages of 24 and 60.
While the average outlook for diagnosed diabetic retinopathy isn’t as grim as that statistic might suggest, it is important to note that the disease does affect an extremely high percentage of diabetics. Roughly 40 percent of all Americans with diabetes do have some form of retinopathy, and the risk scales with time – some sources estimate that up to 90 percent of individuals living with diabetes for over 25 years will experience some form of retinopathy.
As consistent eye exams are the only way to catch the disease in its earlier, less damaging phases, it’s best for diabetics to schedule at least yearly checkups with a specialist.
If you do find yourself diagnosed, as we said above, the outlook isn’t entirely grim. Even individuals with advanced retinopathy have a very good chance at keeping their vision if the disease is caught before it causes major damage to the retina. Treatment often involves using a laser to destroy encroaching blood vessels. Additionally, several drugs have been proven to help in the management of diabetic retinopathy.
In some cases, a full vitrectomy, the replacement of the clouded vitreous (clear liquid in the eye) with saline solution, may be necessary. All options are effective if begun early enough. Maintaining healthy levels of blood pressure and blood sugar is also important while trying to control the progression of diabetic retinopathy.
While retinopathy is likely the largest threat to diabetic eyes, there are a couple of other linked diseases worth discussing.
Glaucoma, or chronic increased pressure in the eye, can easily lead to nerve damage if left untreated. Diabetics are at increased risk for glaucoma, partly because the same mechanisms that contribute to diabetic retinopathy also interfere with normal blood flow to the eye. Like diabetic retinopathy, open-angle glaucoma (which comprises roughly 90 percent of cases in the US) is largely asymptomatic, with the only real changes being slow loss of an individual’s field of vision.
Diabetics are also more likely to encounter cataracts, or the clouding of the eye’s lens, which leads to reduced vision. While cataracts are hardly rare among the general population, diabetes is a known risk factor, and bump the odds of contracting cataracts by as much as 60 percent.
It’s extremely important to stay ahead of these eye conditions. You need to make sure your getting the essential vitamins to prevent or manage the symptoms. You also need to schedule regular eye exams. If left undetected and untreated, these problems can spread and cause major health issues down the line.