How diabetes affects your eyes

Many things affect your eyes that you wouldn’t necessarily expect would. The list is practically endless.

The fact is, your eyes don’t exist on their own. They are part of a complex system consisting of various nerves, neurons, and organs including the brain.

Thankfully, you don’t need to know how it all works in order to see. 

One thing we do need to do for our eyes is manage systemic and external factors and conditions — many of which may seem unrelated or insignificant.

One of these conditions that affects your eyes is diabetes. Diabetes, a chronic disease that occurs when the pancreas is no longer able to produce insulin, can affect the health of your eyes and the quality of your vision in numerous ways.

The main reason for this is that, because of the body’s inability to produce insulin, high levels of glucose can build-up in the blood. In consequence, blood vessels all over the body can be affected. Since the eyes have some of the smallest vessels in the body, they are one of the first things to be affected.

In the short-term, high blood sugar levels can change your vision so you may experience fluctuating vision when the blood sugar is not under control or when you are changing medications.

Over the long-term, however, diabetes can lead to significant vision loss and permanent damage to your eyes.

The most serious diabetic eye diseases begin with blood vessel problems. Let’s dive into the four biggest threats to sight.

Diabetic retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy is a serious eye condition that can cause vision loss and even blindness.

As you may guess by the name, the condition affects the retina—the light-sensitive layer of tissue at the back of your eye. What happens is the tiny blood vessels that feed the eye with nutrients start to leak fluid or bleed.

Early diabetic retinopathy is characterised by blood vessels weakening, bulging, and/or leaking. If the condition gets worse, some blood vessels close off completely. This causes new blood vessels to grow—or proliferate—on the surface of the retina.

This advanced stage is called proliferative diabetic retinopathy. In this stage, the new blood vessels that have grown are abnormal and don’t work very well, often leading to serious vision problems.

Find out more on Diabetic Retinopathy on our dedicated website for retinal treatment.

Diabetic retinopathy may not have any symptoms at first. And so, if you have diabetes, it’s important to undergo a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once a year. Catching it early can help you take steps to protect your vision.

Diabetic macular edema

The macula is the part of the retina that is responsible for central and detailed vision and is what we rely on most for reading, driving, and recognising faces.

Diabetes can lead to an accumulation of fluid in the macula. This is known as diabetic macular oedema (DME). Over time it can reduce the sharpness of your central vision and lead to partial or complete vision loss.

There are two main forms of DME:

  • Focal DME:which occurs due to abnormalities in the blood vessels in the eye
  • Diffuse DME:which occurs because of widening/swelling retinal capillaries

It is possible to avoid or reduce the effects of DME by having regular eye exams and controlling blood sugar levels.

Glaucoma

Glaucoma is widely known as an eye condition that commonly occurs in people whether or not they have diabetes or any other physical ailment.

Typically associated with age, glaucoma occurs when there is an excess amount of fluid pressing on the optic nerve—the bundle of nerves that connects the eye to the brain.

If you have diabetes, you have a greater risk of developing glaucoma. What’s more, those with diabetic retinopathy are also at an increased risk of glaucoma.

In its early stages, glaucoma can have very few symptoms. However, as it advances, you may notice blurred or missing areas in the vision.

The exact symptoms you experience depend on the type of glaucoma you have. But whatever the type, they all pose a serious risk to your vision.

Thankfully, this can be avoided if caught early, and there are now several methods of glaucoma treatment that can significantly reduce its effects.

Cataracts

Cataracts is another common eye condition that many people experience as they get older. According to the WHO, cataracts is the leading cause of blindness and one of the main causes of visual impairment across the globe.

A cataract is defined as the clouding of the natural crystalline lens inside the eye. The word is derived from  giving it a similar appearance of the opacity caused by the condition.

People with diabetes are more likely to develop cataracts at an earlier age than those without diabetes. Thankfully a short surgery can remove the cataract and restore your vision.

What can I do to protect my eyes?

There are many things you can do to safeguard your vision and prevent the development of diabetic eye disease.

Advice from the National Institute of Diabetes suggests managing your ABCs: your A1c, blood pressure, and cholesterol, as well as quitting smoking if you smoke.

The next step is having a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once every year. Even if you feel your vision is great, many of the above conditions can develop with few to no symptoms, and so there really is no excuse to not get your eyes checked often.

If you have diabetes and have struggled in the past to manage your health, it’s never too late to start. Put the steps above into practice today and give yourself the best chance at clear and healthy vision for years to come.

To find out more about diabetes and eye health or to book your consultation, leave us a comment or get in touch with one of our friendly clinic coordinators today.

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How diabetes affects your eyes

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