It turns out that ripple effects from diabetes-induced high blood sugar can harm so many physiological systems, including the eyes in a phenomenon known as diabetic eye disease. Here’s what you need to know about it, plus how to lower the odds it will happen to you.
Diabetic eye disease is an umbrella term used to describe several ocular health conditions.
A key condition in this group is diabetic retinopathy, the most common cause of vision loss in people who have diabetes, according to the National Eye Institute (NEI). It happens when persistently high blood sugar damages blood vessels in the retina, the thin piece of tissue at the back of the eye that processes light.
Then there’s the related condition diabetic macular edema (DME), a repercussion of diabetic retinopathy that causes a buildup of fluid in a part of the retina called the macula, the NEI explains. The macula is responsible for the straight-ahead vision used for things like reading, driving, and seeing faces. According to the NEI, about half of people with diabetic retinopathy will go on to have DME.
Both diabetic retinopathy and DME can cause severe vision loss or even permanent blindness, the NEI says. (Diabetic eye disease also includes cataracts, or a clouding of the eye’s lens, and glaucoma, a group of conditions that harm the optic nerve. We’re going to focus on diabetic retinopathy and DME since the former is so common and the latter is a related consequence.)
The early symptoms of diabetic retinopathy and DME are vague to nonexistent.
In the early stages of diabetic retinopathy, people usually don’t have symptoms, the NEI explains. Eventually, prolonged bleeding from damaged retinal blood vessels can cause floating spots in a person’s vision, which may or may not clear up then reappear. If someone also has DME due to diabetic retinopathy, they may experience blurry vision on top of floaters. Eventually, this can evolve into vision loss or permanent blindness.
Since these conditions cause little to no symptoms, it’s essential to have regular eye exams if you have diabetes, Colin A. McCannel, M.D., professor of clinical ophthalmology and medical director of the UCLA Stein Eye Center in Santa Monica, tells SELF. Catching and treating diabetic retinopathy early reduces the risk of blindness by 95 percent, the NEI says. For your best chance at that, you should be seeing your eye doctor at least once a year for a comprehensive eye exam including dilation.
Treatment for diabetic retinopathy and DME varies based on the issue and the severity at which your medical team discovers it.
If you’ve caught diabetic retinopathy early enough, getting your blood sugar under control may be treatment enough for the time being, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Even if diabetic retinopathy has progressed into DME, sometimes it’s possible to stop or even reverse the resulting vision loss, Jeffrey Walline, O.D., Ph.D., associate dean for research at the Ohio State University College of Optometry, tells SELF. Treatments to improve vision issues caused by diabetic retinopathy and DME include injection of medications into the eyes to stop the growth of leaking blood vessels, using corticosteroids to reduce eye inflammation, and laser surgery to reduce blood vessel leakage and swelling, among others, the NEI says. But sometimes this vision loss is irreversible, so early detection and treatment really are crucial.
If you have diabetes and you’ve noticed vision changes recently, check in with your eye doctor ASAP.
This is a good rule to follow even if you don’t think you have diabetes, Mina Massaro-Giordano, M.D., co-director of the Penn Dry Eye & Ocular Surface Center and a professor of clinical ophthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania, tells SELF.
Beyond that, even if you’re symptom-free, make—and keep—those eye appointments at least once a year, Dr. McCannel says. It’s vital for your overall eye health, especially if you have diabetes.