Diabetes: Why You Shouldn’t Skip Your Eye Exams

Dr. Russel Lazarus, February 7, 2021
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Annual eye exams can prevent 95 percent of vision loss.

Diabetes affects around 10 percent of the American population, yet nearly 60 percent of people with diabetes report skipping their annual diabetic eye exams.

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Why are eye exams important?

Patients with diabetes have a high risk of developing a sight-threatening eye disease called diabetic retinopathy.

Diabetic retinopathy is the number one cause of vision loss among people with diabetes. 

Diabetic retinopathy occurs when high concentrations of sugar in the bloodstream weaken the blood vessels in the retina. As a result, these blood vessels begin to leak fluid into the retina, leading to blurry vision and other visual distortions— and eventually vision loss.

Unfortunately, in its early stages, diabetic retinopathy does not usually present with noticeable symptoms— making early diagnosis nearly impossible without an annual eye exam.

By regularly monitoring your ocular health, you are ensuring that any ocular changes that occur will be detected early, before they can cause any permanent harm to your vision.

When caught early, diabetic retinopathy can be successfully treated with anti-VEGF medications or laser surgery.

Can diabetes cause other ocular conditions?

Yes.

The effects of diabetes on the eyes can cause other sight-threatening conditions, including:

Diabetic macular edema

Diabetic macular edema, a complication of diabetic retinopathy, affects more than 50 percent of patients with diabetic retinopathy.

Diabetic macular edema can occur when fluid from the retinal blood vessels spills into the macula. The macula is located in the center of the retina and is responsible for central vision and vision for fine details.

When fluid builds up in the macula, it can lead to macular swelling and central vision loss.

When caught early on, diabetic macular edema can be successfully treated with anti-VEGF medications, and/or laser surgery.

Cataracts 

While cataracts typically develop gradually, beginning after the age of 40, diabetes has been shown to cause an earlier development and faster progression of the condition.

Cataracts occur when deposits of protein that make up the eye’s transparent lens begin to form on the surface of the lens, causing the lens to become cloudy and opaque. This results in blurry and distorted vision and eventually vision loss, if not treated.

Cataract surgery is generally recommended when the cataract significantly impacts daily functioning. Cataract surgery involves replacing the cloudy lens with an artificial intraocular lens that contains the patient’s optical prescription.

Glaucoma 

People with diabetes are twice as likely to develop glaucoma, when compared to people without diabetes.

Glaucoma occurs when the fluid inside the eye is unable to effectively drain from the eye, and the pressure within the eye begins to rise. This increased ocular pressure presses on the ocular nerve, causing progressive damage and vision loss.

Diabetes has been linked to a specific type of glaucoma, called neovascular glaucoma. Neovascular glaucoma occurs when new blood vessels grow on the iris and prevent intraocular fluid from naturally flowing out of the eye.

This type of glaucoma usually develops quickly, without any noticeable symptoms, causing permanent vision loss, even before the disease is detected.

An eye exam can detect early signs of neovascular glaucoma and help to prevent vision loss.

Glaucoma treatment generally involves medicated eye drops, anti-VEGF medication, laser treatments, or surgery.

 

If you have been diagnosed with type 1 or type 2 diabetes, it is vital to keep up with your regular eye exams to preserve your eye health and reduce your risk of vision loss. 

Schedule an appointment with your eye doctor to learn more about how you can protect your ocular health from the effects of diabetes— preventing vision loss before it occurs.