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How to Prevent Diabetic Vision Loss

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Eye Complications of Diabetes

It's true. Diabetics have a higher risk of blindness than those without the disease. This fact coupled with the improved prognosis of early intervention, makes it easy to understand why optometrists and family medical doctors say routine eye care is absolutely essential. Below, we'll discuss what your eye doctor is looking for during a diabetic eye exam.  

As the incidence of diabetes increases, it's important to spread awareness about the risks and proper preventative care for diabetes patients. November is Diabetes Awareness month, so read on!

Diabetics have a greater risk of a number of eye problems.  

Diabetic Retinopathy:

Diabetic retinopathy is the term used for the disorders associated with diabetes that cause progressive damage to the retina.  The longer a patient is diabetic, the more likely it is that they will develop the conditions that can lead to very serious, vision-threatening complications. 

There are two types of retinopathy: nonproliferative and proliferative. 

Nonproliferative retinopathy is the most common form. This occurs when capillaries within the retina at the back of the eye become weakened and may start to leak blood and fluids.           Nonproliferative retinopathy often has no symptoms. It can be characterized as mild, moderate, or severe, depending on how many blood vessels are affected. This type of retinopathy usually doesn't require treatment and doesn't cause vision loss, unless the leaking fluid occurs in the macula - a condition called macular edema. If this happens, vision can be blurred and even reduced permanently, so preventative treatment is essential.  

Proliferative retinopathy is much more severe. This occurs when so much damage occurs to the existing blood vessels in the retina that new blood vessels begin to grow. The new blood vessels are weak and can leak blood, impairing vision. Scar tissue can then form which may distort the retina or cause a sight threatening retinal detachment.

Proliferative retinopathy requires urgent referral to an ophthalmologist for treatment. While it usually takes years to develop, some instances of proliferative retinopathy can occur within weeks or months if the blood sugar is not well-controlled. Pregnancy can also accelerate proliferative retinopathy in those known to have diabetes. Yet if detected early, treatment can be performed successfully. 

Like high blood pressure, there are often no warning symptoms until the advanced stages of diabetic eye disease. It is best to be assessed each year by an optometrist. If you experience any changes in your vision such as spots, flashes of light, blurred, or double vision (rarely pain), make an appointment with your eye doctor immediately. Treatment does exist for retinopathy and it can be successful in repairing the damage and sometimes even enabling restored vision.


Cataracts are a clouding of the lens of the eye which blocks light from entering and impairs vision. While cataracts are a fairly common and treatable condition, people with diabetes are 60% more likely to develop cataracts and often get them at a younger age. Those with the condition also may experience vision fluctuation which occurs from poorly controlled sugar levels affecting the lens of the eye. Cataracts often progress faster in those with diabetes. In more advanced cases of cataracts, a surgical procedure is performed to remove and replace the natural lens of the eye. However this can sometimes cause complications for those who also have diabetic retinopathy.


Glaucoma is a serious condition where damage occurs to the retina and optic nerve. If left untreated, glaucoma can cause blindness.  Diabetics are 40% more likely to develop glaucoma and the risk increases with age and the amount of time the individual has diabetes. There is treatment for glaucoma including medication and surgery, but early detection and treatment are essential to prevent permanent vision loss. Glaucoma is often called the "silent thief of sight" because vision loss often doesn't occur until significant damage is done. Therefore, yearly eye exams are essential. 

Cornea Alterations:

Diabetics may experience reduced sensitivity of their cornea, the surface of the eye. This means that contact lens wearers that are diabetic should be more cautious, as they develop higher tolerance to irritation and may be at a greater risk of infection. 

Eye Muscle Disturbance:

A less common complication of diabetes is the onset of double vision due to restricte eye movement, as a result of an ocular muscle palsy. 

For those with diabetes, the key to early detection and treatment - and therefore preserving your vision - is to have your eye health monitored on a regular basis. Please have your eyes examined every year by an optometrist and if you experience any changes in your vision such as spots, floaters, blurred vision, or pain, make an appointment with your eye doctor immediately.