According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, diabetic retinopathy is a common form of diabetes-related eye disease and the leading cause of blindness in American adults.
Retinopathy is a progressive eye disease that causes damage to the small blood vessels of the retina that allow one to see fine details. Diabetic retinopathy means these blood vessels are damaged, causing leaking of the vessels. It is the most common cause of irreversible blindness.
Those with diabetes are at risk of developing diabetic retinopathy. Risk factors include the duration of diabetes, poorly controlled blood sugars, elevated blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and being pregnant.
Symptoms of diabetic retinopathy may include blurred vision, seeing floating spots and vision changes lasting more than a few days. Other symptoms include double vision, difficulty reading, a shadow across the visual field, eye pain or pressure, or difficultly with color perception.
However, symptoms of diabetic retinopathy may not appear until damage has already begun, so it is essential to schedule a yearly retinal exam upon diagnosis, especially for those with type 2 diabetes. Patients with type one diabetes should have the initial exam within five years of diagnosis, because retinopathy can take up to five years to develop after onset of elevated blood sugars, according to the American Diabetes Association.
A retinal exam, also called an ophthalmoscopy or funduscopy, is a painless exam that can be performed by an ophthalmologist or optometrist or at a specialized diabetes center, and the results should be shared with your primary care provider. Usually, eye drops are used to dilate the pupil to allow the provider to examine the back of your eye, including the retina, blood vessels and the optic nerve.
Remember, the risk of diabetic retinopathy increases over time in patients who have diabetes, especially with uncontrolled diabetes, blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels.
While diabetic retinopathy cannot be reversed, getting an annual retinal exam will allow your eye doctor to diagnose retinopathy early, help you manage the eye disease and help prevent vision loss.