by Kimberly Allen, RN
Diabetes Mellitus is a significant medical problem worldwide and can cause a wide range of long term health issues throughout your body. These long term effects also have a significant impact on society as well as the patient because not only is diabetes increasing in prevalence it also tends to strike people when they are in their most productive years.
In the US, diabetic retinopathy is the number one cause of newly diagnosed blindness in people between 25 to 74 years of age. There are at least 700,000 people in the US suffering with progressive diabetic retinopathy with another 65,000 being diagnosed every year. Approximately 30% of diabetics 40 years of age and older are suffering from some degree of diabetic retinopathy. Diabetes alone is responsible for at least 12% of the cases of blindness in the US. The longer you’ve had diabetes the greater your chances of developing diabetic retinopathy.
The retina is that delicate layer of cells that are sensitive to the light in the back of your eye. The retina becomes stimulated by the light which it then changes into electrical signals. Those signals then travel via the optic nerve to the brain where the brain then deciphers them to create the images that you “see”. The retina requires a continuous supply of fresh oxygenated blood to work effectively. It receives it’s blood supply through a network of tiny blood vessels. Excess sugar in your blood damages all the tiny blood vessels throughout your body including those that nourish the retina. As the sugar in your blood increase it blocks off those tiny blood vessels first. Over time the number of blood vessels that are impaired or blocked increases which in turn decreases the oxygen supply to the retina. The retina then tries to compensate for the impaired blood vessels by growing new ones. However, the new blood vessels do not form properly so they tend to leak regularly. The blood leaking from these new blood vessels leads to blindness. It can also cause scar tissue to develop on the retina which can lead to a detached retina.
Diabetic retinopathy develops over time as the blood vessels that supply the retina become clogged. The first area of the retina to become damaged is usually the macula. The macula is the area that allows you to differentiate colors and focuses in order to read and write. As the macula becomes damaged you will begin to experience some vision loss. You may have difficulty reading or you may be unable to see things that are a distance away clearly. As the damage progresses you may experience patchy or blurred vision due to the leaking from the new blood vessels. Left untreated diabetic retinopathy results in complete blindness.
Treatment for diabetic retinopathy depends on the type and severity of retinopathy you have. In the early stages you may not require treatment, however, your doctor will want to monitor your eyes closely as well as work with you to maintain your blood sugar levels with in normal limits as maintaining good control of your blood sugar levels can significantly impair the progression of diabetic retinopathy. for people that suffer from advanced diabetic retinopathy require immediate surgical intervention. There are two types of laser treatment that your doctor may recommend, focal laser treatment and scatter laser treatment. Your doctor will discuss both procedures including benefits and risks to determine which is best for your individual needs.
The best way to prevent diabetic retinopathy is to commit yourself to managing your diabetes. Eating healthy and exercising regularly are a crucial component to effectively managing your diabetes and blood sugar levels. In addition to managing your diabetes it is also important to control your cholesterol levels as well as your blood pressure. It’s also important to quit smoking if you have diabetes as that can increase complications like diabetic retinopathy. It is also extremely important to get yearly dilated eye exams which can detect early diabetic retinopathy.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.