Slideshow: Diabetes Complications -- Eye Problems and Blindness
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How Diabetes Affects Your Eyes
Diabetes can make you more likely to have eye problems. Your blood sugar (glucose) levels may be high because your body can't make or use insulin properly. Too much blood sugar can build up and harm your nerves and blood vessels. Damage to the blood vessels in your eyes can lead to vision loss or blindness. Anyone with diabetes is at risk, so it’s important to get yearly eye exams.
Symptoms of Eye Damage
Diabetes can affect your eyes in different ways. When your blood sugar is high or when you start insulin treatment, you may have blurry vision or other problems. But your eyes can be damaged even if you don’t notice any changes. Don’t wait for symptoms to arise to get your vision checked.
The retina senses light coming into your eye, and it sends messages to your brain about the things you see. Damage to blood vessels inside the retina from blood sugar buildup is called diabetic retinopathy. You might not notice changes at first, but over time the walls of your blood vessels may leak fluid. When you’ve had diabetes for a while, blood vessels can form scar tissue and pull the retina away from the back of your eye. This can lead to severe vision loss and even blindness.
Treatment -- Laser Surgery
Your doctor can diagnose retinopathy during a thorough eye exam. He’ll use a special dye to find leaking blood vessels. In the early stages, diabetic retinopathy often can be treated with laser surgery called photocoagulation. The laser seals the blood vessels and stops them from leaking and growing. The procedure can't restore lost vision. Combined with follow-up care, though, it can lower your chances of blindness by as much as 90%.
Treatment -- Vitrectomy
In the late stages of diabetic retinopathy -- if the retina has detached or a lot of blood has leaked into your eye -- your doctor may suggest vitrectomy. This surgery removes scar tissue, blood, and cloudy fluid from inside the eye. Vitrectomy can improve your vision.
Diabetic Retinopathy Risk Factors
Eventually, nearly everyone with diabetes will have some degree of retinopathy. Your chances increase the longer you have the disease. The odds will be higher if you don’t have good control of your blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol.
How to Prevent Diabetic Retinopathy
Keep your blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol under control. A major study found that people with diabetes who managed their disease intensely had much lower rates of diabetic retinopathy than those who followed standard treatment. It also helps to stop smoking. And it's very important to get an annual dilated eye exam to spot early signs of the disease.
Glaucoma and Diabetes
While anyone over 40 is at increased risk of glaucoma, people with diabetes are 40% more likely to get it. Your chances rise the longer you have diabetes. Glaucoma can cause bright halos or colored rings around lights, but it usually has no symptoms. Untreated, it can cause an increase in eye pressure that damages the optic nerve, resulting in vision loss and blindness. It can be treated with drops to lower eye pressure, or with laser or conventional surgery.
Cataracts and Diabetes
If you have diabetes, you're 60% more likely to get cataracts -- and you’ll probably get them at a younger age than people without diabetes. Poor control of blood sugar can speed up this condition. With a cataract, the lens in your eye becomes cloudy. This blocks light and makes everything look hazy. Cataract surgery, where the eye's natural lens is replaced with an artificial one, can help vision. Sometimes diabetic retinopathy can get worse after cataract surgery, though.
See Your Doctor
If you have diabetes and have any of these symptoms, see your doctor right away:
Blurry or hazy vision
Spots, floaters, or shadows
Severe eye pain or pressure
Sudden vision loss in one or both eyes
Sense that a curtain is coming down over your eyes
Flashing lights, double vision, or blind spots
Waviness or distortion of straight lines
Seek emergency care for any loss of vision or double vision.
National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse, National Institutes of Health: "Prevent diabetes problems: Keep your eyes healthy."
FamilyDoctor: "Diabetes: Eye Care."
MedlinePlus: "Diabetes - eye care."
National Eye Institute, National Institutes of Health: "Diabetic Eye Disease FAQ."
American Diabetes Association: "Eye Complications."
Fong, D. Diabetes Care, January 2003.
American Diabetes Association: "Eye Care."
National Eye Institute: "Facts About Diabetic Retinopathy."
US News & World Report: "Diabetes Seems to Heighten Glaucoma Risk."
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.