Diabetic Retinopathy

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What is diabetic retinopathy?

Diabetes is a condition marked by high levels of blood glucose resulting from the body’s inability to produce or use insulin. Low vision is just one of the serious complications. Others include heart disease, stroke, hypertension, kidney disease and nerve disease, which can lead to amputation.

Diabetic retinopathy is an eye disease resulting from diabetes. It is the leading cause of new diagnoses of blindness in Americans ages 20 to 74. Every diabetic is at risk. Between 40 and 45 percent of all diabetics will suffer from diabetic retinopathy to some degree. Over 14 million adults over 40 are predicted to have diabetic retinopathy by 2050. 

Because of excess blood sugar, diabetic retinopathy damages small blood vessels lining the retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye, impairing vision. The negative effects on daily activities of living such as reading, driving, exercising and many other tasks often taken for granted can be overwhelming.

The damage can affect your central and peripheral vision, including the ability to resolve small detail, eyes working together, depth and color perception and contrast sensitivity. Diabetic retinopathy can also result in other vision conditions such as cataracts and glaucoma.

Like many debilitating effects of diabetes, the damage can be limited or prevented by following a doctor’s plan of care. Learning to control your blood sugar levels through medicine, diet and exercise and managing your blood pressure and cholesterol are essential to managing diabetes.

Regular, thorough eye exams, including dilated eye evaluations, should also be a part of your plan of care. Even mild visual impairments can significantly reduce your daily activities. Low vision rehabilitation can improve your visual function and restore your independence.

Who most often gets diabetic retinopathy?

Millions of Americans with diabetes are at risk of diabetic retinopathy. Nearly 24 million Americans have diabetes — a 13.5 percent increase since 2005. Over 25 percent of diabetics don’t even know they have this disease. Prevention is key - 57 million individuals are likely to get the disease if they don’t alter living habits or receive necessary treatment.

As you age, you are more likely to have diabetes. African-Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders are at particularly high risk of Type II diabetes, the most common variety. However, diabetes can affect anyone, regardless of age or race.

What are the symptoms?

Diabetic retinopathy often has no early warning signs, meaning damage may be done before diagnosis occurs. The absence of warning emphasizes the importance of annual wellness and dilated eye exams with your eye doctors.

Having symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean that you have diabetes, but it does mean you should make an appointment with your doctor. In most cases, the earlier your diagnosis, the better your prognosis. If left untreated, proliferative retinopathy can occur. In proliferative retinopathy, the most advanced stage, abnormal blood vessels leak into the eye’s center, blurring vision. Sufferers may see small flecks or spots floating in their field of vision. They should see an eye care professional as soon as possible. Left untreated, about half of all cases result in vision loss. 

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How can low vision rehabilitation help me?

Low vision professionals are a part of your plan of care if you are losing your vision due to diabetes. Your doctor’s early referral for low vision rehabilitation can help minimize the negative impact of vision loss on daily life. This process begins with a low vision optometric exam to determine the nature of your vision impairment. When the assessment is completed, the doctor will suggest a plan of care that may include use of optical devices, adaptive aids and low vision rehabilitation training to help make the most of your existing vision.

To read more about diabetic retinopathy, visit https://www.nei.nih.gov/health/diabetic/retinopathy (opens in new window)

If you and your doctor determine that your quality of life could benefit from rehabilitation, ask him or her to refer you to the Envision Rehabilitation Clinic, or call us to set up an appointment at 316-440-1600.

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